Chapter 1
Introduction

1.1 Purpose of the study

This study looks at the development of satellite, terrestrial and cable digital broadcasting systems and services and the implications that this has for education and training. It focuses on developments within Europe but also considers developments in other parts of the world.

A major focus of this study is on the potential for interactive learning services to the home via digital television (TV) using consumer or low-cost receivers. However, it is also possible using the same or similar equipment to receive interactive learning services to the office or a learning institution. This study does not deal with digital broadcasting technologies that require more expensive equipment to be available in institutions and companies. Therefore, the types of services that are available to the home or the office via consumer devices are likely to be of the same types.

Issues that are addressed by this study include:

1.2 Overview of Developments of Digital Broadcasting Services

Up until a few years ago most radio and television broadcasts made use of analogue technologies. This has now changed and there are now over 1000 TV channels accessible to homes in Europe via satellite using digital technologies. Using suitable equipment it is also possible to broadcast data via satellite directly to a computer in the home. In addition, it is increasingly possible for digital broadcasts to be sent via cable networks and also in a digital format "over the air" - terrestrial broadcasting using an existing aerial that was used for receiving analogue broadcasts.

In order to receive digital broadcasts, the home user has to have a suitable device -known as a set-top box - for receiving and converting the digital signal into a suitable format for using with an existing TV set. This is in addition to the equipment needed to receive the signal - whether it is via satellite, cable or terrestrial means.

Receiving a digital broadcast means that the quality of sound and picture is improved. It also means that the broadcaster can transmit more programmes over the same amount of bandwidth than it can do for analogue broadcasts. For the broadcaster this means it is cheaper to broadcast each channel and more channels can be offered to the consumer giving them a wider variety of choice. This has been a major advantage for the commercial broadcasters who charge a subscription for a bouquet of channels and can also charge extra for additional premium channels on a pay-per-view basis. With extra channels available they can also stagger the start of films enabling people to have some choice as to what time they wish to watch a film.

The most rapid developments of digital broadcasting have been via satellite. However, in some countries - the United Kingdom and Sweden in particular - terrestrial digital broadcasting has started. The driving forces for these developments have tended to be national governments who:

The more rapid the conversion from analogue to digital, the more bandwidth is available for digital services.

At the end of 1997 no more than 50% of European homes passed by cable (but not necessarily connected) had been digitised.(2) However, competition is now also driving the cable companies to offer digital services. For older cable networks this involves considerable expense for upgrading - but this also means that they can both offer telephony and also meet demand for high-speed access to the Internet.

Digital broadcasting is in effect the broadcasting of data in a variety of multiple media formats - video, sound, text and graphics - in a similar way that a computer receives data when it is connected to an online service. For households with digital cable networks it is possible to request information from the broadcaster via the cable network's "return channel". This is also possible for satellite and terrestrial broadcasting by using a normal telephone line connected to the set-top box containing an internal modem. Thus it is then possible to offer so-called interactive services, changing the TV from a passive viewing device to an active device which can receive information requested by the viewer.

1.3 Implications for Education and Training Providers

As Europe along with the rest of the world is moving into an era of lifelong learning a key issue for those offering learning services is to find the most effective way of reaching their target audiences. It is also in the interest of many governments to make learning more widely available and accessible to their citizens. Access to knowledge and learning is now seen as a means of enabling a region to remain competitive in what is now becoming a global economy. The reskilling and upskilling of large numbers of people is now being considered as being critically important in particular for those who may not have had any education or training since leaving school.

The traditional providers of education and training are failing to satisfy all these needs particularly when there is an increasing demand for access to learning at any time and any place. Flexible and distance learning methods are being seen as one way of meeting some of these needs, particularly with the use of new technologies. The use of the Internet with the World Wide Web is starting to become a useful way of providing learning services including the opportunities for interactivity. TV and radio broadcasting has for many years been a very appropriate means of providing knowledge and specific learning experiences ranging from university level to primary school level, from basic skills to vocational courses for small businesses. However, the availability of such specific programmes does vary across Europe. In addition, increasingly "specific learning" programmes have been broadcast during unsocial hours requiring the viewer to record the programme and view at their "convenience".

Digital broadcasting technologies have the potential to offer new ways of providing learning experiences to the home as well as the office. More digital channels can be broadcast than was possible with analogue channels. Potentially the programmes could be cheaper to produce and broadcast. Interactive services of various types are possible. Interactivity is seen to be of particular importance in the process of learning. The combination of these two factors means that learning through a TV set could be made more accessible and interesting and has the potential to reach most households in Europe who are already used to watching a TV.

Interactive digital broadcasting learning services do have the potential of reaching millions of people in their own home or office whenever they have a need for such services - and possibly in a cost-effective way. However, there are still a large number of issues that need to be addressed before such services could become widely available. This report explores the possibilities of what might become a reality in the near future. It also explores the implications of developments of other competitive technologies that are beginning to emerge to offer high-speed delivery of information to the home. In addition it looks at current ways that data broadcasting can also provide multimedia learning resources.

Footnotes

  1. "Development of DTV in Europe Reference Report/ 1998" Draft IDATE December 1998