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Is Africa ready for digital TV?

January 17, 2014 • East Africa, Features, Southern Africa, West Africa

Will Africa be ready to meet the ITU digital switchover deadline of June 2015? (Image source: Shutterstock.com)

Will Africa be ready to meet the ITU digital switchover deadline of June 2015? (Image source: Shutterstock.com)

The days of traditional broadcasting or sending video/ sound via analogue signals in Africa are numbered – that much is clear, particularly in light of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) deadline for the migration from analogue broadcasting to digital terrestrial television (DTT) by June 2015. Once that deadline passes it is understood that there will be no more international support for- or of analogue spectrum.

Today, many African countries are chasing time to ready themselves through intensive end-user awareness programmes, facilitating communication between stakeholders, including service providers, and adapting their strategies accordingly.

The migration, while relevant to both radio and television broadcasting, is currently focused on television broadcasting. The rationale behind the migration is that it will lead to more efficient use of spectrum, to an improvement of viewing experience, as well as to the availability of more frequency for alternative allocation and usage.

In a review of the continent’s general progress in this regard, it is important to consider that different regions in Africa have different migration deadlines. These have been subject to change and several territories have done so.

There are numerous factors that have impacted the ability for certain markets to reach their targets – including misinformation, confusion, as well as the supply and cost of set-top boxes (STBs). These devices are required by consumers in order to pick up new digital tv signals.

As an example of challenges being experienced by some countries, towards the end of 2013, Kenya’s Communication Commission (CCK) was challenged by three media organisations over the granting of exclusive rights to pay channels to oversee the digital migration process.

The organisations reportedly filed an urgent court petition in which it is claimed that they were deliberately left out of the migration process – this despite attracting over 85% of local viewership.

The East African country’s government announced December 13th as the date that the analogue signal would be turned off in Nairobi and its’ environs, commencing the first phase of the switch to digital television.

Under this phase, the areas of and around Nairobi County, Kiambu County, Ngong, Ongáta Rongai, Kitengela, Isinya, Kajiado, Athi River, Machakos and Thika will go live followed by  Mombasa, Malindi, Nyeri, Meru, Kisumu, Webuye, Kisii, Nakuru and Eldoret  in phase two  (30th March 2014)  and the final phase for the rest of the regions by 30th June 2014.

Digital broadcasting is expected to cover at least 80% of the Kenyan population, bringing access to digital television and marking the end of the analogue transmission technology.

In May 2013 there was reportedly confusion between Zambian authorities and Chinese firm Star Software Technology Company over a tender for the country’s digital migration project. Towards the end of the year, it emerged that the $220 million tender had been cancelled, a decision that was appealed by the Chinese company.

More recently Rwanda’s communication authority, the Rwanda Utilities and Regulation Authority (RURA) has stipulated a migration deadline of July 2014. In July last year authorities had made public their intention to switch off analogue transmission by year-end, however the scarcity of STBs was cited as a challenge.

The four vendors authorised by RURA to import and distribute STBs – Star Times, Tele10 TV, Sorim Ltd. and TransAfrican Container – have reportedly witnessed an increase in uptake of the devices ahead of migration deadline.

Kim Kizito, Tele10TV’s marketing manager, is quoted as saying that the Group have, to date, sold 7,000 STBs and are selling at a rate of 100 per day. The company’s devices are pre-programmed.

At the same time representatives from Star Times and Sorim Ltd. have stressed their respective ability to install, program and offer post-sale service to customers.

By December 2013 Cameroon was reported to be struggling with the switchover. Global reports suggest that whilst experts acknowledge the many benefits of digital technology, including sharper images and high definition broadcasting, there is awareness of challenges – most notably the fact that old television sets will not be able to receive signals.

The Voice of America quotes digital switchover expert, Tebo Mathias, as saying that locals are supposed to be informed. “…they are supposed to be well educated because you will not imagine an old person maybe in the village somewhere, one morning he is unable to tune to a station because the switchover is already there and he was not aware,” he said.

Mixed signals on Africa’s readiness

Mauritius was one of the first countries in Africa to initiate its migration process in 2005. Many countries, including Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania, have already made steady progress in their efforts to successfully and completely migrate.

CEO of analysis firm Strategy Worx Steven Ambrose expects that most of Africa will meet the ITU deadline – with one notable exception: South Africa.

“The government and the department of communications have dithered and delayed so long that it is virtually impossible for South Africa to meet the deadline. The chances are South Africa will only go fully digital sometime in the 2017 timeframe – at this point dual illumination of digital and analogue can stop and all analogue signals will be able to be switched off,” he says.

The issues of set top boxes and encryption have also stifled the country’s progress. “The net result is a completely missed global deadline and inordinate costs to the country to keep obsolete and completely unsupported analogue broadcast technology up and running,” Ambrose adds.

However, there are others who disagree somewhat. Adrian Schofield, FCSSA, PMCSSA, Manager, Applied Research Unit, Joburg Centre for Software Engineering at Wits University, who acknowledges that his opinion is his own and subjective, believes most of Africa will not meet the ITU deadline and says, for the most part, it is unlikely to matter – at least not for the next year or two.

“When the deadline passes, there will no longer be any international “protection” for the spectrum that is used for analogue TV, so there could be signal interference and degradation if other users are allowed into the spectrum. The real challenges are the pent-up demand for the spectrum to be reallocated, to improve broadband access and provide better quality of service and the ability of viewers to access digital TV with analogue equipment. It is the latter that will impact the poorer sections of the communities, as they will have to acquire new aerials and set top boxes – even if subsidised, it is likely to reduce the number of people able to watch TV,” he says.

Schofield says it will be interesting to see when state-owned/ controlled broadcasters will decide to switch off analogue signals and where, in Africa, STBs are made and how long it takes for ‘grey market’ or ‘hacked’ products to surface. “It is no co-incidence that Multichoice has launched the Dstv Explora now, to lock in their market,” he adds.

* Image via Shutterstock

Chris Tredger – Online Editor

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