Seth A. Reames.

The Latest from Tokyo--April 28, 2009
More Bsat Channels Coming, “One Segment” kills MBCO, Actvila crashes “in the forest”

by Seth A. Reames
President, SARJAM Communications

I have three items to recap at this time: the pending plan to extend the Broadast Satellite (BS or Bsat) service to include additional channels, the official termination of Mova Ho!’s mobile satellite TV service, and an unbelievable system crash on Actvila interactive television service.

The Bsat service is in full swing to migrate to digital by 2011, the original timing coincidental to digital migration of terrestrial broadcast TV. It’s still not clear yet whether the latter effort can achieve the 2011 deadline. Once the analog Bsat service is gone, then the analog frequencies open up for new content, and the higher frequencies will be licensed. As of the March 23, 2009 deadline to apply, 29 business filed their plans in a bid for for these licenses with the government MIC (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications). The broadcast launch for the “new” BSat channels is slated for Oct 1, 2011, and MIC plans to award licenses between June and July this year. Since there may be as many as 18 HD channel slots available, applicants have a better than 50% chance of winning a license, it seems, although some applicants have applied for more than one channel.

All of the key domestic and international players have filed for a license, such as Wowow (premium movie, sports, and entertainment), Star Channel (premium Hollywood movies), Animax (Sony Pictures TV animation), Imagica (domestic independent), Tohokushinsha, Eisei Gekijo (Shochiku), Toei Satellite, Space Shower (music), J Sports (premium sports), Jupiter Satellite (J:Com), Fox, Disney, and BBC. The players with the most financial backing are clearly the promising bidders, if not the winners. The appetite for spectrum in Japan translates into highly efficient plans. The licenses will be reusing the frequencies vacated by the analog satellite channels, who continue on the digital service. The expansion will also assign previously unused higher frequencies, which may be more difficult to receive in the home, because higher grade coaxial cable makes a difference. In that sense the vacated analog frequencies actually have more value to a potential licensee.

Incidentally, there is another road opening for more spectrum, besides Bsat. I alluded to the pending termination of analog broadcast TV in 2011 above, and that is the next space of keen interest. This is VHF spectrum, and traditionally found to be suited to broadcast TV. The apparent plans are to allocate the vacated analog TV spectrum to mobile TV, to desiring cable and satellite channels that did not get the honor of the main broadcasters who inherited the 1 seg mobile TV spectrum (low bandwidth video channel that has simulcast the high-def DTV so far, and that will be allowed to host original content in the near future). The mobile (cellular) phone in Japan is a high-impact communicator, and has experienced much heavier use as an Internet access tool, content consumption device, and email terminal than seen elsewhere around the world. Many models have a “1 Seg” DTV receiver built in, and the pending plan for more channels “a la 1 Seg” may greatly increase eyeballs for the disadvantaged cable-satellite channels.

Next, the official demise of Mobile Broadcasting’s S-band Mova Ho! service came at Mar 31, 2009. The service launched in Oct 2004, but never took off. In July 2008, MBCO was forced to pull the plug, just a few days after NHK announced broadcast termination on the service. The minimum target of 1.5 million subs was missed by several multiples after nearly four years of effort. The technology did not seem to lend itself to indoor viewing, since the satellite would be out of sight, and the gap fillers to address reception difficulties sounded like an unbelievably costly idea. The most useful application would be automotive, across long distances and outlying areas with difficult reception of broadcast TV, but tunnels would present the conventional challenge. Early on, I personally saw the service demos at trade shows on several occasions, and considered the picture quality inferior for a 21st century experience, and the terminal too large for a single-use device. Key partner Toyota never managed to figure out how to market aggressively for their cars, and an adapter for PC did not fire up sales, either.

As it turned out, the “1 Seg” DTV service delivered cleaner reception in automobiles than analog broadcast TV, and became a huge competitor for automotive onboard usage. In addition, “walk-about” consumers could buy mobile phones with “1 Seg” tuners. Free commercial TV plus regular NHK was thus available for viewing, and such staple killer content was not airing on Mova Ho! pay service, even through commercial-free music channels and datacasting were featured. In the end, Mova Ho! never gained an edge with its content or receiver, and subscriber counts suffered heavily. So long, Mova Ho!

Finally, how many readers have heard of Actvila or acTVila? Japan's home electronics giants Hitachi, Panasonic, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba came together to create a common portal in Japan for interacive television. The portal is called Actvila, which has some ring of interactive TV to it, but in Japanese pronunciation means a door opening. So, the door that opens to interactive TV is this ubiquitous button on Blu-ray recorders, HD television sets, HD DVRs, etc., and begs you to connect your home TV environment to the Internet. I haven't done it yet. And it appears that millions haven't.

On December 23, 2008, Actvila crashed. Completely. The company’s video delivery vendor, Internet Iniative Japan mistakenly deleted the entire live server full of interactive television content. For over 36 hours, Actvila could not be used at all, and anybody familiar with television media would conclude immediately that the switchboard at Actvila must have literally lit up like a Christmas tree and then fried like a short-circuited appliance. No such thing happened. In fact, the inflammatory Internet sites had hardly any traffic disparaging the event. Nobody was in the forest right before Christmas.

The real embarassment was not the service crash, but the lack of subscriptions. Here, we are pushing the envelope. High-definition video content over the Internet means FTTx connectivity, and in Japan that penetration is ratcheting up. But the in-home LAN environment is, more often than not, wireless. And the LAN connection options to the home electronics appliances are, more often than not, wired only. This mismatch is costing Actvila a lot of opportunity.

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