Bulgaria's Blurred Digital TV? Move
The government in Sofia is dragging its feet over the long and keenly awaited analogue switch-off. The delay not only puts Bulgaria at a disadvantage in comparison with neighbor countries. It also begs a simple question: is the cabinet incompetent or plain corrupt?
Bulgaria's government postponed this week - once again - the adoption of a plan for the analogue switch-off, which is scheduled to be wrapped up by September 1, 2013.
The document, keenly awaited in Brussels, was to be approved at the cabinet's meeting on Thursday, but Prime Minister Boyko Borisov put a spanner in the works, citing funding concerns.
The news boosted speculations that the government is just playing for time, protracts the switch-over and has no intention to declare void the controversial tenders for the operation of what will be the country's DTT multiplexes despite pressure from Brussels.
In 2009 the previous Socialist-led government adopted a number of controversial laws and amendments, which allegedly paved the way for a cartel in Bulgaria's digital switchover - all winners in the tender are linked in one way or another to Corporate Commercial Bank, widely known as the government's darling, and its head Tsvetan Vassilev. The bank holds nearly half of the money of strategic state-owned companies and is believed to finance the media group of mogul Irena Krasteva.
The current government of GERB has done nothing so far to break the cartel in Bulgaria's digital switchover. The European Commission has reacted and may continue to pile pressure, but at the end of the day will steer clear of interfering in what is a purely national issue.
In the dark over the switch-off
There are a number of questions that still nobody can answer even though the licenses have been granted and the plan for the digital switchover - drawn up.
How come the funding concerns, which should have been solved at the very beginning of this process, prop up at the very last minute? What will be the broadcasting tariffs applied by the licensees, Towercom/Hannu Pro? Will they be low enough to justify the cost of free to air broadcast? Are the owners of Nova TV channel, for instance, ready to fork out EUR 12 M – the price as disclosed by insiders - to Towercom to get DTT? Why in Hungary, for example, the price that multiplex operators ask from TV channels for getting signed up, is half that sum?
The digital switchover plan says Bulgaria aims at 95% of network coverage. But nobody is saying a word about how the country will do that and what will be the tariffs to the customers.
The experience of France shows that the cost rises dramatically if you want to make the coverage bigger. Since they wanted the service to come at low prices to the customers and be accessible by everyone, France decided to cut down the network coverage from 95-90% and saved costs big time. How does Bulgaria plan to achieve 95% coverage at low prices is a question without an answer.
It is also not clear how many Bulgarians will be able to watch the programs of a particular TV channel. In other words - the main issue about what the coverage of the network will be and how many Bulgarians will not be able to watch TV – remains unsolved. Insiders have commented that up to 20% - people in the mountainous and sparsely populated areas - may end up with no TV signal.
The deadline for wrapping up the analogue switch-off - September 1, 2013 – has been fixed in the latest amendments to the Electronic Communications Act, adopted on December 29, 2011. The transition period will span over six months and will allow both analogue and digital transmission. Nobody knows however whether the population is technically equipped for that and whether the people have an idea what is going on.
There are also concerns that the networks for the distribution of digital TV, owned by the companies which won the tender for the multiplexes, are not fully developed. That could mean that the service may misfire at its very launch and lead to poor business results.
Audience? What audience?
Bulgarian officials are very good at seeking and finding comfort. Vesselin Bozhkov, head of the communications watchdog, has offered quite of a reassurance. Italy had the same problems, he said, but steered clear of Brussels' sanctions because the digital switchover in the country was over before the start of the legal phase of EC infringement proceedings.
Bulgarian officials apparently forget that in other countries, the digital TV brings a multiple of new TV channels, better quality and additional services to the viewers. This is not a step, which should be taken just because the Big Brother in Brussels is watching.
The interests of the audience however do not seem to be the main priority.