Politics in a box: digital television in Japan and Brazil

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2014-08-04

There has been a great deal said about the impact of technology on politics.  According to one (seriously flawed) argument the Arab Spring was “created” by Google and social networks. A more valid point notes the Internet has profoundly changed the political campaigning landscape in democratic countries. It is also true political dissidents have used the Internet to mobilize anti-government activity in authoritarian states, although in many instances this has been constrained by state surveillance of the Internet, phone calls, and text messages.

Much less attention has been paid to how politics shapes technologies.  I call this phenomenon, where broad political aims influence electronic products’ system design, politics in a box.

A good example is the Japanese digital TV standard ISDB-T.

As television transited from analog to digital in the early 2000s, enhancing its quality and signal efficiency, three main standards emerged around the world.  These were ISDB-T in Japan, the European-backed DVB, and ATSC in North America.  ISDB-T and DVB were designed to also support mobile TV, although ISDB-T does it in a unique way by specifying one channel (“one-seg”) dedicated to delivering signals to mobile devices.   In Japan, by 2010 all mobile handsets were able to receive the free-to-air TV signal.  This was pushed by the country’s public broadcasting organization NHK, which like the BBC in the UK is funded by compulsory license fees. The politically-powerful broadcaster was heavily involved in the digital TV standardization process.

The design of “one-seg” is more than just another technology innovation: it is a clear demonstration of the political power of NHK. The dominant free-to-air broadcaster was able to influence the shape of the mobile telecommunications industry to further its own aims.

The ISDB-T’s system design proved attractive to another politically-influential, free-to-air TV broadcaster on the other side of the world.

Rede Globo, Brazil’s private, dominant, free-to-air broadcaster with a 60% audience share and 80% of the advertising revenue, decided to support the adoption of ISDB-T in Brazil.  In June of 2006, in the run up to presidential elections — in which Rede Globo can be very influential — Brazilian President Lula da Silva announced the adoption of ISDB-T in the country.  The political economy of digital TV in Japan, in which NHK is a powerful player, appeared to be a good fit for its Brazilian counterpart.

Brazil still has only a small base of handsets supporting “one-seg,” but Rede Globo has achieved its primary goal. This was to avoid the adoption of European-backed DVB, perceived at that time as a tool for entry of telecom operators into mobile TV broadcasting, rather than pursuing the broad adoption of “one-seg” on mobile handsets.

In the end, DVB failed to gain broad adoption anywhere in the world—including Europe—for broadcasting via DVB-H.  (LTE Broadcast could actually fulfill that goal). But the politics of digital TV in Japan and Brazil promoted technology which reflected the political influence of free-to-air broadcasters despite opposition from telecom operators and equipment suppliers.

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