Why is the transition to digital broadcasting proving to be so problematic in Bulgaria?
While several other countries in the CEE region have already completed the process – in some cases quite smoothly – it has found itself the subject of an investigation by the European Commission into the award of multiplex licences back in 2009.
Eight years earlier, the incumbent telco BTC, now more commonly known as Vivacom, was granted a 13-year licence for a six-channel multiplex covering the capital, Sofia. Following a long delay, it finally launched a trial service in November 2004.
However, there then followed years of debate, during which time several plans for digitisation were put forward. I still clearly remember attending a conference in Sofia in December 2008 on “The role of Electronic Media in Ensuring Intercultural Dialogue in the Digital Age” in which Bulgaria’s DTT experience was discussed, alongside those of such countries as Hungary, Romania and Albania, in a far from optimistic light.
All this nevertheless changed within a matter of months as licences for a total of six multiplexes were awarded to Towercom (Slovakia) and Hannu Pro (Latvia). Yet this was only the start of more problems, with unsuccessful bidders, such as Austria’s ORS, complaining about the lack of transparency in the procedure.
At the same time, the local press began to speculate about who was actually behind the bidders, naming local media and financial entrepreneurs. Soon afterwards, the national transmission company NURTS was sold to the Cyprus-registered Mancelord Limited, also apparently backed by local entrepreneurs, and Hannu Pro controversially awarded a licence to operate the public service multiplex.
Late last year Bulgaria made an attempt to avoid legal action by announcing it would hold a contest for yet one more multiplex. However, in the last few days, a failed bidder in the earlier contests – the Bulgarian company DVBT – submitted a complaint to the EC after failing to get any joy for the local courts.
Although it is hard to predict the outcome of all this, there is certainly a possibility that Bulgaria will be forced to withdraw the licences previously awarded to Towercom and Hannu Pro and hold another contest. One can only hope the situation is resolved quickly, as the country risks falling seriously behind in the transition to digital broadcasting.