Stefano Ciccotti, Chief Technology Officer, Rai

In recent years there has been much discussion about the role of a modern public service media (PSM) organization. There are different views about the most coherent corporate structures and the models to be adopted for providing the most appropriate content, but it is unanimously recognized that most significant priority of PSM remains informing and entertaining the largest possible percentage of the population, reaching even the most remote areas of the country with its signals, taking into account minorities of all types – regardless of the market logic that dictates the priorities of private broadcasters – and having disintermediated and universally accessible networks.

Obviously, over the decades the methods with which signals have been transmitted have progressively transformed. We have evolved from a single programme on an analogue carrier to a bouquet of channels on a digital multiplex, up to modern OTT platforms on broadband networks. Through all of this, public radio and television have continued to respond to the changing needs and habits of citizens by offering a cutting- edge service designed to encourage the inclusion and participation of every citizen in the contemporary cultural debate.

In such a scenario, it must not be considered a coincidence that the new agreement between the Italian state and Rai sets the aim of reaching the entire population through all platforms, with a view to differentiating the supply and satisfying the needs of the community, in line of the original mission of the European PSM. This objective sits at the centre of Rai’s Industrial Plan for 2024- 2026.

Role of DTT

As in several other European countries, in Italy digital terrestrial broadcasting remains the key platform for guaranteeing public radio and television services. This is thanks to the quality of the service, independent of the size of the audience, the ease of use of the platform and methods of access to content, the availability of the signal in disaster or emergency situations, and the platform’s resilience to cyberattacks, to which both broadband and satellite platforms are more exposed.

For the above reasons, a very interesting phenomenon can be observed in Italy: the digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform retains commercial interest and is attracting renewed investments from some international ‘big players’. In fact, they continue to find strong profit margins in DTT, especially in the prime-time segment. This was clear from the growth in 2023 of advertising revenues collected by Italian television broadcasters. This growth was driven by ongoing editorial investments in the schedules and supported by technological innovations launched following the reorganization of UHF frequencies in Italy. There was a consequent consolidation of the extension of terrestrial radio and television coverage and significant efforts towards finding technical solutions to reach also the most remote areas of the country, very often not reached by broadband connections, with the objective of reducing the
so-called digital divide.

Fixed wireless multicast

It is to serve the needs of the population located in such remote areas that Rai is testing an innovative broadcast solution for the diffusion of radio and television signals via “fixed wireless access multicast” transmission over IP protocol. The system consists of a headend, namely a satellite receiving point, for the redistribution, through Wi- Fi access points, of radio and television signals, as well as a certain number of domestic reception points, equipped with CPE (consumer premises equipment) Wi-Fi.

Continuing to serve populations in remote areas is a priority

This solution manages to combine the growing need for environmental sustainability (limiting the need to install cumbersome heavy antenna reception systems that can have an environmental impact in small mountain towns) with the modern habits of the users accustomed to having Wi-Fi reception systems in their homes, and with user-friendly access to content of interest, limiting interaction with IP platforms, which is sometimes perceived as problematic and annoying.

Local everywhere

Another initiative that represents an innovative way of providing public services through the television is related to the growing need of the population to be informed about news and events on regional or even very local basis, whereby services are made available on a national basis in the case of residence in different region. Rai has developed a new solution based on the HbbTV functionality of smart TVs, allowing simple and efficient access to the regional content you like without downloading specific applications or entering specialized OTT platforms.

The function, called Regional Exchange Action, allows the user to choose which edition of the main local live programmes to follow, regardless of the region in which the Rai digital terrestrial signal is received. It provides a transparent mechanism for the user to switch between the DTT network and the internet at the beginning and end of the regional programme.

Quality & accessibility

Another very important priority for PSM in recent years, linked to the growing distribution of large-screen UHD TV displays, is related to providing audiences with the best possible quality of service. This strategy is pursued through actions to strengthen Rai’s HD and UHD offer with the forthcoming activation of the DVB-T2 standard on Rai’s national DTT multiplex, without losing sight of the need to avoid exacerbating the digital divide.

Considering another fundamental and peculiar characteristic of PSM, which is the use of networks based on the criteria of universal access and disintermediation, Rai is promoting tools that facilitate access to the world of apps and the web for those who are affected by temporary and non-temporary disabilities, and who therefore use auxiliary technologies. We are introducing a broad range of assistive technology solutions for accessing Rai’s online services.

These include options for reduced colour profiles, improved readability, pages with fewer distractions, the possibility to navigate using the keyboard, and optimizing the site for reading via screen-reader.

5G Broadcast

It is important to point out that it is increasingly becoming a priority of PSM to satisfy the growing need of citizens to enjoy content on mobile devices. Based on ongoing careful analysis of the trends and aligned with PSM’s fundamental requirement for universal and disintermediated access, Rai is going to propose a 5G Broadcast network. Specifically, we plan to implement 5G Broadcast transmissions with a high-power, high-tower network in five Italian cities (Rome, Turin, Milan, Naples and Palermo). The aim is to extend coverage of advanced television and multimedia services to reception on the move with portable terminals (smartphones, tablets and laptops), in conjunction with the events of 2024 (Olympics, UEFA European Championships) and 2025 (the Jubilee celebrations of the Catholic Church), which will generate large amounts of traffic.

As far as radio is concerned, in a context of significant growth of interest in Italy, Rai is going to enhance the national digital radio service by extending its DAB coverage to provincial areas and motorway sections, even through the diffusion of the signal within the tunnels.

In parallel, the development of specific innovative applications is envisaged through the Rai Play Sound app, aimed both at enriching the content, for example by providing thematic insights associated with on-air programming, and for the provision of public or emergency information, managed by institutional bodies such as civil protection, government ministries, etc.

Multiplatform content

The overarching goal – all content, for everyone, everywhere – also implies a change in editorial processes and the format of the multimedia content offered. Interworking of broadband and broadcast is critical here. Rai has therefore fostered a constant dialogue between operators of new generation networks and content producers in order to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the delivery of multiplatform public service content offered. From this perspective, we have also strengthened research and collaboration with the universities, research bodies and leading commercial vendors, identifying technological trends and promoting investment activities in this sector.

The extraordinary experience and expertise of the PSM community and the EBU in the radio and television sector, combined with constant monitoring of digital tools and analyses of audience behaviour in terms of fragmentation, accessibility and interactivity, will allow us to continue to fulfil the difficult task of responding effectively to the “all content, for everyone, everywhere” paradigm, which must be the primary objective of PSM.

This article first appeared in issue 60 of EBU tech-i magazine.

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