The digital switchover stalls

The digital switchover stalls

Switching to digital TV could free up radio spectrum for mobile broadband, but many African countries will miss a June deadline. 

In June 2006, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, met in Geneva and signed a treaty agreement saying that all broadcasting would be digital by 17th June 2015. At the time, the ITU called it “a major landmark towards establishing a more equitable, just and people-centred Information Society.”

The logic behind the switchover is that moving onto digital TV brings better-quality viewing, allows more channels on the same networks, and frees up radio spectrum, which can be used to roll out broadband services to underserved areas.

“The digital switchover will leapfrog existing technologies to connect the unconnected in underserved and remote communities and close the digital divide,” ITU said at the time.

However, nine years on, with just months left before the deadline, Africa lags the rest of the world in its migration from analogue to digital. Several countries have been given extensions; South Africa doubts that it will be able to make it even two years after the deadline, while Kenya’s migration is mired in court action. Those that have achieved the deadline have done so by effectively shutting off service to people without decoders.

“I think that many African countries have not seen the process as important and as a result, have tended to view the deadline as the start of the process,” says Russell Southwood, chief executive officer (CEO) of research firm Balancing Act and an expert on African broadcasting.

“But besides a rather slow approach to the issue, the bigger problem is: where does a cash-strapped African government find the money for building out the new transmission infrastructure?”

The cost factor is a particular problem in smaller countries – Benin, for example, estimated in December it needed to find an additional $110m for infrastructure upgrades. Those financing problems should be less acute, however, in countries such as South Africa and Kenya.

It emerged in February that South Africa may have to wait until 2017 to complete the migration, as government departments and bodies rowed over who had ultimate responsibility for overseeing the process.

Kenya’s digital migration saga has been in and out of court. Research reports found awareness of the migration amongst Kenyans was very low and uptake of the necessary set-top boxes even lower. It is now back in court, after the Communications Authority (CA) imposed a “hard shut-off” on the country, forcing media houses to switch off their analogue frequencies and leaving millions without access to television.

This kind of hard shut-off is the only way that some African countries will meet the June deadline. Tanzania completed its digital migration last year, even though only 500,000 decoders were in use out of an estimated 3m television sets owned by Tanzanian households. In Rwanda, 27% of people with television sets did not yet have decoders when analogue was switched off.

Such tactics mean countries technically meet the deadline, but citizens do not get their benefits of digital television while losing their main source of information.

Records from 2006 show that around 30 African countries were exempted from the 2015 deadline at the time, including the likes of Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Somalia. For those without an exemption, missing the deadline could have serious consequences.

After 17th June, the ITU will no longer protect countries from cross-border radio spectrum interference – something which is likely to become more common, given some countries have completed the migration.

“It’s probably important for several countries that are geographically close.

“The most acute one would probably be something like Brazzaville and Kinshasa,” says Southwood, who adds that African consumers would also miss out on the benefits of digital television.

“The current quality of African TV signals is in my experience is often very poor and where I have seen the digital TV transmissions they have been a considerable improvement. In addition, there have been more channels, giving greater choice to viewers.”

Ovum research analyst Adam Thomas agrees, saying that digital broadcasting would allow new players into the market, with the existing analogue network only able to carry a small number of channels.

A bigger issue, however, is the loss of the so-called “digital dividend”. This would see spectrum currently being used for analogue broadcasting diverted for delivering broadband in underserviced areas. As the majority of Africans are forecast to access the internet using mobile devices, the availability of more bandwidth for mobile broadband could bring in more competition and better, cheaper services.

“The so-called high-demand spectrum that will become available from going digital will not become available any time soon,” says Stephen Ambrose, managing director of consultancy Strategy Worx. “The impact of that is significant, as mobile is the main connectivity option for South Africa and much of Africa.”



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Written by Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson is a tech and business journalist based in South Africa . A UK-trained reporter, he is committed to the dream of African development through technology. Tom is looking to present a picture of the "real" Africa tech scene in order to aid better understanding of how it can be used to develop Africa economically and socially.

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