Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Developments on the Latvian TV market

For most Latvians, television is a service that comes over the net, so it rightly belongs in a telecoms blog. And anyway, what is telecoms? More and more, it is using a computer with a voice/video chat function. I am not only talking about Skype and its clones, but also those computers with voice functions that we call smartphones, such as the iPhone4s.
There has been a big hoo-hah about television in Latvia, mainly because of a big merger between a subsidiary of Sweden's Modern Times Group (MTG), TV3 and another privately owned TV company Latvijas Neatkarīgā televīzija (LNT). TV3 and LNT were both loss makers in a drastically reduced advertising market and it was a matter of time before LNT would go down first, taking a pretty talented crew and substantial audience down with the ship. So the move was necessary, and, even if it established a kind of Swedish monopoly on commercial television (with lots of restrictions imposed on the deal by Latvia's Competition Council) it was still better than the alternative of LNT going down or being sold to some murky Russian media group.
Up to now, both channels have been paying customers of Lattelecom, both for its terrestrial digital broadcast services (with the digital signal also going out over Lattelecom's interactive IPTV service). Oddly, Lattelecom's CEO Juris Gulbis spent quite a few tweets criticizing the merger, even though both were his customers and it really didn't matter who owned them as long as they pay their bills. In 2013, if amendments to the Electronic Media Law are passed, it will put an end to something called “must carry” and both commercial channels, hitherto broadcast over cable and internet networks for free, will be able to charge cable operators and, eventually, viewers, for watching them. Kaspars Ozoliņš, the CEO of MTG Baltics says the extra revenue will allow him to expand locally produced programming on both “national” commercial channels, thereby retaining and increasing his audience and the base for future advertising.
It may, however, be too little and perhaps too late. A lot of cable operators are saying they will relegate both national commercial channels to premium packages with fewer viewers, defeating the purpose of increasing the number of viewers. Others will pay but won't pass on their costs to their viewers (the head of a small cable TV operation in the town of Kuldiga told me this). Still others may use their cable networks as “common antennas” and feed the terrestrial digital signal (still for free for all of 2013) to their viewers. Those who have modern television sets with built in digital decoders will see the feed effortlessly, others may have to rig their Lattelecom terrestrial decoders to the cable network. So it looks like lifting “must carry” will not exactly free the Golden Goose to go flying into the coffers of MTG.
An interesting and still struggling free internet TV operation is, launched by the social network of the same name. Its assortment of channels is still limited, but still includes BBC World. It seems that the commercial Latvian networks see it as an upstart and have blocked draugiem from using their signal. Look for a proliferation of internet TV and TV aggregators in Latvia as entrepreneurs discover how relatively easy this is to do.
On another note, I tested the new random videochat application The jury is still out. I ended up talking to an internet entrepreneur in The Hague, told him about TechHub Riga. Before him, some murky faces appeared (bad lighting, bad cameras), not eager to talk. So it could be another Chatroullette, which by many accounts degenerated into a series of exhibitionists looking for random “viewers” of their attributes.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Back again with an update on 4G, the future of TV

I have totally neglected this blog, but I will make an effort to get it back on track. Here is some news that may not have appeared elsewhere.
Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT) has launched 4G services in the Latvian port city of Liepaja. This is one of the places where 4G was first tested a couple of years ago, but the first commercial launch of 4G (in the 1800Mhz band) was in the seaside resort of Jurmala near Riga, then in Riga and the immediate environs.
All of this has taken place without great fanfare, although, when asked, LMT officials will tell you that all new mobile internet modems sold are 4G capable. So it looks like the operator is planning to go nationwide. I have been given a test modem (passed on by a PR agency from another journalist). Unfortunately, it does not even show up on my MacBook, although my son managed to download the modem driver on his MacBook Pro, where the modem didn't work either. But that is, perhaps, an individual problem.
It should also be noted that LMT in its official presentations has downplayed 4G as a priority, saying instead that it would finish the build-out of its 3G network, which is capable of download speeds of up to 42 Mbps (the 4G network claims speeds of up to 100 Mbps). So is the Liepaja deployment a shift in strategy? Remains to be seen. For the moment, LMT isn't following this up with any high profile marketing activities.
Meanwhile fixed network operator Lattelecom has been presenting itself as a multi-platform TV distributor – digital terrestrial, interactive (IPTV) and internet TV (for watching on laptops, tablets and mobile phones). This is available for one package price (internet +various TV services+ increasingly less useful, but “free” fixed telephony), with free WiFi at Lattelecom sites across the country.
The next major issue Lattelecom faces on the television market is the end of its license to broadcast digital terrestrial as of December 31, 2013. It now looks like a)the Latvian State Radio and Television Center will be exclusively tasked with broadcasting the free-to-air public television channels of Latvian Television while b) “more than one packager” of pay television channels may be selected by tender. In practice, this probably means Lattelecom and another competitor will be awarded a license starting January 1, 2014, or so the government has indicated. Lattelecom has said it will participate in the tender, but has warned that if two winners are selected, there will be a duplication of functions and a division of the market that will more likely increase cost to both competitors, especially the newcomer.
On the IT side, the real excitement in Latvia is the increasing number of internationally recognized start-ups, such as the alternative Macintosh/iOS address book Cobook, the digital goods selling site Sellfy, the question and answer site for teenagers, as well as some applications coming out of the Latvian social network's incubator IdeaBits, such as the productivity tool Desktime and systems for managing vending machines (Vendon) and vehicle fleets (Mapon).
The other “hotspot” of innovation is TechHub Riga, an offshoot of TechHub in London that provides a co-working facility for startups with plenty of interesting guest lecturers and seminars. Hopefully I will be able to do more on both of these centers of innovation, probably in the form of videoblogs introducing some of the movers and shakers on the Latvian IT startup scene.