Illustrated by Ellena Ekarahendy
Illustrated by Ellena Ekarahendy
Dissecting Digital Television: Amidst Technical Capabilities and Political Interests
In Indonesia, broadcasting digitalization is inevitable. Yet, the gigantic technological project is still clouded by myths and misunderstandings.
Dissecting Digital Television: Amidst Technical Capabilities and Political Interests
In Indonesia, broadcasting digitalization is inevitable. Yet, the gigantic technological project is still clouded by myths and misunderstandings.

Bandung, January 30th 2010. Hundreds of people gathered inside Sasana Budaya Ganesha (Sabuga) Convention Hall at Bandung Institute of Technology. Tifatul Sembiring, the then Minister of Communication and Informatics, was in the middle of delivering his speech regarding digital television. The camera was swinging from left to right, showing a joyous crowd as seen through their broad smiles.

During his speech, Tifatul recounted an odd analogy to the woman audiences. According to him, by adopting the digital television, we avoid the trouble of giving birth and taking care of a child. Adopting digital television is analogous to giving birth to an adult. The speech was followed by an enthusiastic applause.

Should this speech be anything about the policy makers level of comprehension regarding digital television, then it is necessary to worry about the future development of this technology in Indonesia.

In a nutshell, broadcast digitalization is a process of diverting and compressing analog signals into binary codes. This technology offers the possibility of a much more efficient frequency setting compared to analog technology. This means that digital broadcasting brings through the possibility of one frequency signal to carry multiple broadcasting channels. This ability is unimaginable in analog broadcasting (Dominick & Messier, 2012).

Spectrum efficiency made possible by digital television could be used for various innovations. The ability of broadcasting multiple channels through one frequency signal is called multicasting.

The advantage of this technology is enormous; digital technology could multiply channels up to 12 times or even more (depends on the standard of digital television used). Some of its pioneering countries, digital technology is praised and considered capable of revolutionizing the basic principles of broadcasting regulations all over the world. The technology renders spectrum scarcity, the basic assumption of frequency management, irrelevant. In Spain, for example, the implementation of digital technology succeeded in adding the number of channels from 6 to 29 (Fuertes & Schlosberg, 2011), while in France it went from 6 to 23. (Beadle, 2012).

This technology brings positive influence in global broadcasting infrastructure. Its use is hoped to incentivize the broadcasting industry so it “can generate dividends and give economic dynamism to the sector and produce creative jobs, opening the spectrum to a greater plurality of ideas, reinforcing local languages and different cultural expressions” (Garcia & Plata, 2013: 34).

Digital technology had emerged in Indonesia since early 1990’s, through satellite TV (Indovision) and cable TV (Telkomvision). However, the technology was unpopular. Indonesia was a country with over 250 million population and 90% of it is the audience of free-to-air terrestrial television (Yudono, 2013). It did not come as a surprise if digital television only gain its recognition in 2009 when the Ministry of Communication and Informatics announced its plan to digitalize Indonesian terrestrial television system (or digital terrestrial television, hereafter called “digital television”).

Unfortunately, digitalization in Indonesia appears in a repeated pattern: technology, which supposed to be a tool of progress, is instead considered as the progress itself. New technology is seen as superior than the old one, while ts efficacy and suitability to local condition and local priority are rarely examined.

These series of articles on digital television will be divided into three parts. This article will examine digital television in the macro context of the political economy of Indonesian broadcasting industry. The second article will discuss democratic potentialities brought about by this technology, as well as an evaluation of regulations created based on these potentialities. The third article will position the development of digital television in the context of global technological competition.

Assessing the Actors: The State and National Television Industry

The leading role of the State is what makes digitalization in Indonesia especially unique. In the pioneering countries, this innovation is driven and financed by the industry. Broadcasting digitalization could be the largest technological project undertook by the state since the fall of “New Order” regime in 1998. It is the largest in the sense of not only demanding a high cost but also requiring a total change of system.

DVB-T21 is apparently the standard of choice in Indonesian digital broadcasting platform, and it requires multiplex system (mux). This system implies the separation of digital broadcasting providers from broadcasting institutions (channels or television stations). In other words, there will be a company whose only task is to track the conversion process into digital signal and broadcast it, while there also be a company who would only produce broadcasting contents. This mux system will surely alter Indonesian broadcasting practices because to date, the two processes are managed by television stations.

Even though the state had started the process of digitalization by means of planning and regulating, the resources and financing process of this migration project are not yet concrete. The high cost of digitalization, as well as historical trauma regarding New Order authoritarian government in broadcasting sector, demanded the involvement of private sector in this project.

This involvement would probably bring another problem. In terms of politics, privately owned nation-wide broadcasting televisions (hereafter called “national televisions”) also have bad track records. National television industry oftentimes involves in Indonesia’s political system and becomes a vehicle for political actors who are also the owners of television stations.

Political considerations aside, national televisions are willing to invest in digital technology primarily to preserve their broadcasting license and market share in the television industry. This has its own consequences to the structure of Indonesian television market, which is already chaotic. There are eleven national television stations, along with dozens of local television stations, competing to acquire advertising revenue, which is already stagnant. The growth of advertising expenditure is not proportionate to the number of the competing stations. In a market structure which has bypassed its saturation point, especially for local stations, the implementation of multicasting technology to increase the quantity of channels inclined to ruin the weakening market.

Yet, before the discussion of these problems reach its conclusion, the Ministry of Communications and Informatics under the leadership of Tifatul Sembiring had launched several public service announcements to promote digital television. These announcements present typical problems of analog televisions; e.g. fading pictures, noise caused by poor signal reception, as well as other problems resulted in the poor quality of images and sounds. The narrative of these announcements are concluded by exhibiting the superiority of digital television, which has high definition quality (HDTV).

These announcements have resulted in a common misunderstanding that the adoption of digital television standard will automatically result in HDTV quality visual. Digital signal can, but does not necessarily, improve resolution. These announcements conceal the fact that HDTV image quality could only be experienced in high definition television set--which is pretty expensive. Unfortunately, most of Indonesian population could only watch digital broadcast using decoder and standard definition television (SDTV). This indicates that the promising benefit of digital television would only be experienced by a small percentage of the population.

Meanwhile, there is an inherent problem in the digital technology itself. Digital signal is indeed stronger intrinsically compared to analog signal. However, this technology has two shortcomings.

Firstly, as a technology created to suit urban societies, the high coverage of this signal requires a rather flat landscape. This signal will weaken in a challenging landscape, especially if there are obstacles (such as mountains or buildings) between signal transmitter and receiver. This is of course a unique challenge for Indonesia considering its archipelagic area and diverse land contours.

Secondly, there are no quality gradation in digital signal. Analog television would produce static white noise with buzzy sound once the receiving antenna is going further from transmitter tower. During the analog era, rural communities could still receive television broadcast even though it was in fading quality. With digital television, there will be no such thing. If in certain location digital signal has some obstructions, be it surrounded by mountains or located in an area higher or lower than the transmitting area, then that location might not receive any signal at all.

Digital Television and Spectrum Scarcity

Since the fall of New Order authoritarian regime, Indonesia has been trying to decentralize its broadcasting system through Network Broadcasting System (NBS). The implementation of NBS means that broadcasting license applies only in regional level. Therefore, there will no longer be national broadcast. Televisions and radios would only be allowed to broadcast locally. If a station would like to broadcast outside its legitimate broadcasting region, it has to create an affiliation with local station or build its own local television in that region. This system, legitimized by Broadcasting Law no. 32/2002, was hoped to instill local autonomy and economy.

Unfortunately, NBS is not fully implemented. The actual system used today is a system which allows broadcasting stations to air nationally without affiliating with any local television station. To broadcast outside its region, those stations would only need to build a relay tower. This system was built by the New Order regime to facilitate state control on television industry. Through this system, all of television stations are located in Jakarta and owned by the cronies of Soeharto (Armando, 2011). Indonesia’s Post-Reform television industry is still operating under the New-Order-style centralized system, but for a totally different purpose. It no longer aims to reinforce the control of the state but to strengthen the oligarchy in broadcasting industry.

This centralized system is a hostile habitat for local and community stations. Several local television stations are indeed established, but they have to fight desperately just to gain a small profit.

In several policy discussions, the problems of short-lived local televisions were usually reduced to spectrum scarcity problem. Nationally-broadcasting private television industry, as well as policymakers, consider that this problem would be irrelevant once Indonesia turn into digitalization (Setiawan, 2010; Remotivi, 2014). By this line of thought, digital television would totally negate the obligation to create networks, since it enable almost unlimited broadcasting channels.

Unfortunately, this reasoning left the fundamental problem untouched. Current Indonesian broadcasting structure does not take into account the financial sustainability of local broadcasting industry and the community, or the sustainability of a healthy television market. Digital television, implemented in current centralized system, will be the doom of Indonesian local and community broadcasting stations.

This system will encourage and radicalize the already one-sided competition in analog broadcasting. Considering that the broadcasting range of local stations is smaller, advertisers would obviously choose to put ad in a television stations with more viewers. Even in the United States, multicasting is seen as a specter who would “fragment audiences and thereby reduce advertising revenues [of local stations],” (Hart, 2010: 14) while at the same time supporting the domination of a bigger, well-established industry.

Hence, digital television does not only put forward (seemingly) apolitical reasons to divert attentions from structural and systemic problems in broadcasting industry. Miscalculation in its implementation will also protect and perpetuate current centralized broadcasting system (Setiawan, 2010; Remotivi, 2014). Therefore, the democratic potential of digital technology will be reduced to null.

The technical potency of digital technology to bring forth democratization in broadcasting environment necessitates well-thought policies to ensure its realization. Therefore, before rushing into policymaking, there is a crucial need to isolate the imminent possibilities of digital technology, to discover its pure potentials, and bracketing political and economical intricacies. These possibilities will be the main focus of our next discussion. []


Armando, A. (2011). Televisi Jakarta di atas Indonesia: Kisah kegagalan sistem televisi berjaringan di Indonesia. Yogyakarta: Bentang ;.

Badillo, A. (2012). ‘Francia: politización y concentración’, in L. Albornoz dan T. García Leiva (eds), La televisión digital terrestre. Experiencias nacionales y diversidad en Europa, América y Asia. Buenos Aires: La Crujía, pp.101–126.

Dominick, J., & Messere, F. (2012). Broadcasting, cable, the internet, and beyond: An introduction to modern electronic media (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Fuertes, M. and Marenghi, P. (2012). ‘España: multiplicación de señales, nuevos operadores y financiación incierta’, in L. Albornoz and T. García Leiva (eds), La televisión digital terrestre. Experiencias nacionales y diversidad en Europa, América y Asia. Buenos Aires: La Crujía, pp. 71–100.

Freedman, D. and Schlosberg, J. (2011). Mapping Digital Media: United Kingdom. London, UK: Open Society Foundation,

García, R., & Plata, G. (2013). “Digital terrestrial television policies in Mexico: The telecom wars”. In International Journal of Digital Televison, 4(1), 33-48.

Hart, J. (2010). “The Transition to Digital Television in the United States: The Endgame”. In International Journal of Digital Televison, 1(1), 7-29. doi:10.1386/jdtv.1.1.7/1

Remotivi (Interviewer) & Armando, A. (Interviewee). (2014). “Ade Armando: Pelaksanaan Televisi Berjaringan Membutuhkan Kemauan Politik Pemerintah” .

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Citra Diani

Citra received a BSC. from Universitas Indonesia in 2006, and in 2011 an M.A. in Media  Studies from New York University, where she studied on a Fulbright Scholarship. She is currently working on her dissertation on Indonesia's digital migration policy to obtain doctoral degree in Communication Policy from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Citra lives in Manhattan with a cat and a dog.

Ivonne Kristiani (Translator)

Currently undergoes her postgraduate education in Sociology and Political Philosophy in Paris Diderot University.