China unveils digital broadcast strategy

Beijing - The Chinese government has unveiled an ambitious plan to craft a modern broadcast network over the next five years that will put digital and high-definition TV and broadband access atop a unified national cable TV network reports

Senior officials from China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft) laid out their deployment strategy at the recent China Cable Broadcasting Network 2001 show in the form of a plan extending to 2005. HDTV deployment, starting in 2003, and the rollout of a related broadband-access network over a national cable infrastructure are expected to be its underpinnings. Sarft's strategy is also likely to include homegrown transmission standards and next-generation spread-spectrum technologies for mobile applications.

Lured by the promise of a huge emerging market for TVs, home gateways and Internet equipment, an international coterie of chip makers swooped into the show, armed in some cases with China-specific designs. Among them were Agere Systems (the former optical-electronics unit of Lucent Microelectronics), Conexant Systems, Philips Semiconductors, STMicroelectronics and Broadcom, which announced at the show the opening of its China office.

In the works for two years, China's broadcast road map stretches out over 15 years, with deployment broken into three stages. Satellite broadcasts and most provincial radio and television stations will adopt digitized transmission during the first phase, extending to 2005, officials said. China will define its digital TV standard, including a terrestrial HDTV standard, during this time.

In phase two, from 2005 to 2010, China will establish a digital broadcast industry as government and industry implement digital audio and video program production and editing. Satellite and cable broadcasts will go fully digital at this time, and more terrestrial broadcasting will make the switch.

"China will conduct a full transfer from analog broadcasting to digital in phase three," said Haitao Zhang, deputy minister of Sarft. "We'll gradually stop analog broadcasting by 2015."

China is shaping up as a key battleground in the international competition to set digital TV standards. Government decisions on standards will, in turn, greatly influence the direction of China's electronics industry. The reason is volume: There are nearly 350 million TV sets in China, 90 million cable TV subscribers, 293 radio stations and 653 TV stations.

Some Chinese provinces and cities have already equipped their networks with advanced technologies like digital video broadcasting, synchronous digital hierarchy and dense wave-division multiplexing.

Sarft is overseeing this transition to digital broadcasting and cable. In drafting its three-phase plan, the agency has completed a detailed timetable for rolling out digital TV and HDTV in parallel with the overall strategy. Trial satellite broadcasts of HDTV programming are planned for this year, and digital cable broadcasts are to begin in 2002. After the launch of direct-satellite HDTV broadcasts in 2003, China will complete the shift from analog to digital satellite broadcasts by 2005, officials said.

The plan for terrestrial digital TV calls for defining a Chinese transmission standard in 2003, along with field trials of SDTV and HDTV. The first terrestrial HDTV broadcasts are scheduled to begin in 2005.

China also is drafting industry standards for digital audio broadcast technology, and establishing research teams for DAB and for digital AM and digital multimedia broadcasting. Sarft has constructed trial DAB networks in Guangdong and in the area between Beijing and Tianjin.

Working with the powerful Ministry of Information Industries, Sarft is also defining specifications for a digital set-top box to speed the transition from analog to digital TV. Equipped with the requisite features for digital conversion, the set-top is also being defined as the communications gateway to the national digital cable network.

Sarft plans to unify all of China's roughly 90 million cable subscribers, scattered among different networks around the country, under a national network company. It also plans to absorb investment from state-owned enterprises; foreign investment in the networks remains prohibited here.

The backbone network envisioned would cover 20 provinces. The subscriber base will be expanded to 150 million by 2005 and is expected to hit 200 million by 2010, officials said. The network will eventually offer advanced broadcasting and serve as a two-way communication link, growing into a broadband platform for Internet Protocol applications by 2010.

Hybrid fiber and coaxial cable will be used as a transition technology as interactive products like cable modems are folded into the national cable network. Operators will eventually offer services like voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP), video-on-demand and other data services. Meanwhile, the government is encouraging greater use of fiber to buildings and entire villages.

Attracted by the huge potential of China's cable development, infrastructure builders, OEMs and chip makers are preparing to pounce. Indeed, their interest has made the China cable show the second largest broadcast technology exhibition in the world.

At this year's event, Broadcom Corp. (Irvine, Calif.) announced it will establish a support center here to encourage local product development. The company brings cable modem and VoIP chips to China, and boasts such customers as Huawei Technology, Zhongxing Telecom and other communication groups. Broadcom has also been involved in designing China's HDTV system with Sarft's Academy of Broadcasting Science.

EnReach Technology Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), meanwhile, introduced a set-top design based on Broadcom's BCM93710 chip. The design includes interactive-TV functions like Internet browsing, private video recording and enhanced TV applications.

Targeting the huge market for home gateways and entertainment, Philips Semiconductors announced here its latest Nexperia chip for digital TV, set-top and digital video broadcast (DVB) applications. Also during the show, Shenzhen DIC Information Technology Inc. unveiled a set-top design based on the Nexperia platform.

DIC, one of China's largest set-top box makers, will ship a series of boxes with functions like time-shifting video and digital audio play. With China expected to adopt the DVB-C standard for cable transmission of digital TV, Philips executives said they are confident they can make inroads in the home-gateway market.

Despite the buzz the ambitious broadcast plan is generating, some uncertainty remains about China's cable-based broadband communication network. For instance, there is still no cable modem standard here. Hence, chip makers can't say for sure whether China will choose a system based on the 6-MHz data-over-cable-system interface spec (Docsis), the 8-MHz European version of Docsis or a standard of its own, yet to be defined.

Hedging their bets, chip makers like Conexant Systems Inc. showed two Docsis cable modem designs, U.S. and European versions, at the show.

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