By Ashnah Kalemera
With three years to the global deadline for shifting from analogue to digital broadcasting as set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), some African nations are falling worryingly behind schedule. Among countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda, there are variations in implementation progress, policy frameworks, service cost and offerings, funding availability, and consumer awareness.
The region’s regulators in April met in Kampala, Uganda to promote cooperation and share experiences so as to make the June 17, 2015 deadline. Organised by ITU, the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) and Uganda’s telecommunications regulator, the ‘Workshop and Frequency Coordination Meeting on the Transition to Digital Terrestrial Television and the Digital Dividend’ was held April 16–20, 2012. Participants were drawn from at least 19 countries, and included government officials, regulators, broadcasters and mobile operators.
Abdoulkarim Soumaila, the ATU secretary general, said digital migration was vital to the enhancement of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in Africa because it would allow Africans to access quality radio, television, and broadband services.
Digital migration is the move from analogue to digital broadcasting. It provides for, among others, a variety of high quality audio and visual programmes, interactive services, supports new services such as high definition television, transmission of more content per channel, supports mobile/portable reception and ultimately releases frequency spectrum (“digital dividend”) for other uses, such as broadband provision after full switchover.
The transition requires the development of consumer devices known as set top boxes, and broadcasting and mobile telecommunication standards by key players. The key players are content providers, technical operators, signal distributors, and policy makers and regulators.
Country state of readiness reported at the workshop
Ghana has more than 20 licensed terrestrial, satellite, and mobile broadcasters. The current analogue regime is faced with challenges of high industry management costs, poor infrastructure sharing and weak signal reception. Government and a digital broadcasting migration committee are spearheading the country’s strategy for transition to digital broadcasting. Working with other stakeholders, the committee is tasked with policy implementation, planning, budgeting, performance monitoring, and liaising with the public.
The proposed analogue switch off date is December 31, 2014. However, implementation is running four months behind schedule. Low public awareness, for one, could affect the uptake of services and lead to ‘panic’ in the run-up to the switch over deadline. There is also uncertainty about funding for implementation, and consumer incentives for the poor. Furthermore, no legal framework exists for analogue switch off.
Migration started with government establishing, in 2007, a taskforce on digital migration hosted by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK). Soon after, a multi-stakeholder committee was set up to guide development of a migration plan.
The first broadcast signal distributor, Kenya Broadcasting Cooperation (KBC), was licensed in 2007 and its pilot digital broadcasting signal was launched in December 2009 in the capital Nairobi. KBC is expected to roll out digital services in eight other towns during 2012. A second broadcast signal distributor, Pan African Networks, was licensed in October 2011. It was expected to go on air in Nairobi in May 2012 and 12 other towns by the end of this year.
Consumer awareness campaigns on television and radio commenced in April 2012. With an original transition deadline date of June 2012, CCK anticipates 70% roll out coverage of the current viewing population by the end of 2012. Amongst the challenges faced are financial constraints – “the required funds are in direct competition with other government obligations such as emergency food supplies and the implementation of the new constitution,” said one government official. The lack of tax incentives or subsidies by government has also had an impact on consumer issues of set top box affordability and development of appropriate local content to populate the channels. The setting of a new transition deadline is subject to progress review at the end of this year.
The South African Department of Communication gazetted the final Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy Amendment in February 2012. The set top box equipment standards are due to be finalised at the end of May 2012 and the first batch of boxes are to retail by September 2012. Digital services are due to be launched at the end of 2012 through to 2013. However, final analogue switch off – in line with the ITU resolution date – is yet to be announced. The precise date shall be determined in consultation with the cabinet and broadcasting industry.
The structure of South Africa’s proposed implementation plan is the division of the country’s provincial boundaries into “allotment areas” to allow for cost effectiveness and promote efficient and effective citizen uptake. The digital migration Policy Amendments has a provision for the establishment of the Digital Migration Office to project management of the transmission program.
Uganda is faced with challenges similar to the other countries – funding, local content, affordability of set top boxes and lack of a regulatory framework. The government is yet to pronounce itself on a clear implementation plan. However, the work of the digital migration steering committee and digital taskforce in conjunction with the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) is on-going.
The country has one licensed signal distributor, the Uganda Broadcasting Cooperation (UBC), and four pilot digital broadcasting projects are underway in three districts – Kampala, Jinja and Masaka. The projects are pay TV services with some free-to-air channels by firms not licensed as signal distributors. According to UCC, these investment firms will automatically qualify for signal distribution licensing in the near future.
- In order to achieve economies of scale and development of an African-wide market for digital television set-top boxes, hence minimum cost for this equipment, consideration be urgently given by African States to the possibility of harmonising the digital TV transmission and definition standard, at sub-regional or regional level.
- The following timeline be adopted in order to meet the deadline specified by ITU for the cease of analogue transmissions. The dates indicated are the latest possible dates to meet this deadline and it is preferable that they be anticipated, where possible:
- December 2012: adoption of a common digital TV standard at sub-regional or regional level in Africa.
- June 2013: Finalisation of the establishment of national legislative and regulatory frameworks for the transition to digital TV and the allocation of the digital dividend.
- June 2013: End of frequency planning activities (national and international) for the deployment of digital TV and analogue switch off.
- September 2013: Start of deployment of digital TV.
- June 2014: start of analogue switch off in the UHF band.
- 17 June 2015 : end of analog switch off in the UHF band
- African states make available all necessary human, structural and financial resources to ensure that the above dates are met.
- Concerning the information to consumers on set-top boxes, it was recommended that member states implement labeling of equipment which are compliant with the standards adopted to ensure that consumers are not mislead into purchasing non-compliant equipment.