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JAPAN ADVISED TO DIGITIZE

Panel says next sats should adopt new b'cast format

TOKYO — A study group to the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry made its recommendation Friday for the next generation of Japanese broadcast satellites — go digital.

With the recommendation, the ministry is almost certain to rubber stamp the panel’s report at a March 28 meeting of the Radio Regulatory Committee, which is an advisory board for telecom minister Hisao Horinouchi.

After years of contentious bickering among broadcasters, bureaucrats and industry representatives, Japan will almost certainly relinquish its claim to being the sole protector of analog satellite broadcasts when its next generation BS-4 satellite goes into operation around 2000 with a digital format.

The first BS-4 satellite is slated to be launched this spring and will use the analog format to take over broadcasting four channels from the BS-3 satellite. The current BS-3 satellite broadcasts Wowow, a paid subscription service, along with two channels from pubcaster NHK and an NHK Hi-Vision channel. The second BS-4 satellite is the one that will be digital.

Support of NHK

One of the main factors for reaching the decision to go digital has been getting the support of NHK for the digital format. NHK has sunk billions of yen into its analog format system. It has also developed its own high-definition programming for analog satellite broadcasts called Hi-Vision. There are about 10 million subscribers to the regular analog satellite broadcast and 500,000 for the Hi-Vision service.

The availability of converters, which allow subscribers with analog format systems to receive the digital broadcasts, has been cited by Japanese media as the main reason for NHK backing down from its harsh objections to the digital format. NHK officials have recently said they want to take a leading role in digital satellite broadcasts, and many expect that to include a commitment from the pubcaster to develop digital HDTV.

Global standard

The study group said the digital format should be used because it will allow for a greater number of channels and because it is the global standard format for satellite broadcasts.

The Radio Regulatory Council will allocate channels on the digital BS-4 satellite early next year. According to local news reports, five Tokyo-based commercial television networks are vying for broadcasting rights on the second satellite.

Japan Satellite Broadcasting Inc., the operator of the Wowow channels, already has a spot on the current BS-3 satellite and is also opting for rights on the digital BS-4 satellite.

“The BS-4 satellite will allow for eight or more channels as well as digital format HDTV. That is good news for broadcast satellite subscribers,” Wowow president Shoji Sakuma said.

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