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Digital switchover in Africa
Across Africa, governments are planning for digital switchover. National governments are now preparing to meet the June 2015 deadline set for the completion of analogue switch-off in the ITU’s Geneva 2006 (GE-06) Agreement. And while many governments are confirming their intention to complete switch-off by this deadline, many countries are likely to have difficulty doing so.
In many countries, earlier attempts to complete analogue switch-off have not succeeded. The South Africa Development Community (SADC) had recommended analogue switch-off by the end of 2013 yet no member state has been able to do so. To date, only two African countries, Mauritius and Rwanda, have completed the process nationwide while a third, Tanzania, is expected to do so by the end of 2014.
Pay operators leading digital switchover
Pay television has been a key driver for the DTT platform in many African countries. Often, DTT networks have been built and operated by the pay operators as StarTimes and MultiChoice’s GOtv. In some countries, such as Burundi, Mozambique and Zambia, the DTT network has been jointly developed by the pay-DTT operator and the public service broadcaster. In some countries, such as Malawi, the pay-DTT platform is also used to deliver the free-to- air television services.
Pay-DTT service offerings are extensive and have often launched ahead of the free-to-air DTT platform. StarTimes and GOtv have leveraged their position in the DTT market across the continent and are currently present in 10 countries. The number of services offered varies between countries but can include up to 50 television programme services as is the case in Tanzania. The free-to-air platform, however, is more limited.
DTT receiver requirement
Nearly all countries in Africa have opted for the DVB-T2 standard in combination with the MPEG-4 AVC compression standard. Botswana is the only exception having selected the ISDB-T standard and, as a result, benefitting from support from the Japanese government.
Depending on the launch date of the DTT platform, some countries have first launched using the DVB-T standard before upgrading to the DVB-T2 standard. This has been the case in Nigeria where the migration process was managed by the pay-DTT operator StarTimes. However, a similar migration process in Uganda proved to be more difficult with the pay satellite operator MOTV Africa suing the Communications Commission for compensation following its decision to migrate from the DVB-T to DVB-T2 standard.
Some countries have required that DTT receivers include a conditional access system. In Namibia the inclusion of a conditional access system is used to ensure that viewers pay the public service broadcasting license fee. In other countries, such as Uganda, the inclusion of a Common Interface (CI) slot is optional.
However, it is in South Africa that this debate has caused a delay to the official launch of the DTT platform. The government’s plan to include a conditional access system has been opposed by the public service broadcaster, local broadcasters, some commercial broadcasters as well as pay television operators who claim that its inclusion will make DTT set-top boxes more expensive and complicated. However, by including the conditional access system, the government hopes to limit the influx of foreign made receivers and instead spur a local market for the manufacture of DTT set-top boxes. This issue has delayed the publication of the national technical DTT specification which, in turn, has delayed the launch of the official DTT platform.
The availability of DTT receivers has hindered the uptake of the DTT platform. Few set-top boxes are available and, in many countries, licenses to import the receivers are granted to only a few suppliers. To make DTT receivers more affordable, some governments have decreased the import tax. Among viewers, the perception persists that DTT receivers are expensive and do not always function properly.
Currently, Rwanda and Mauritius have completed analogue switch-off while Tanzania is expected to do so by October 2014. In Nigeria, an analogue switch-off trial in the city of Jos was successfully completed in June 2014.
In Rwanda, analogue switch-off was completed on 31 July 2014 following a four-phased process that began on 31 January 2014. Unfortunately, viewer preparation for switch-off has been limited with an estimated 27% of television households lacking a DTT receiver. However, digital switchover has enabled the terrestrial television platform to increase its coverage; while the analogue terrestrial television platform reached 46% of the population, the DTT platform is available to 95% of the population. In Tanzania, the Communications Regulatory Authority has confirmed that digital switchover will be completed by October 2014. The first phase of digital switchover was completed in December 2012 followed by the second phase in April 2013.
Lack of sufficient financial resources has been a major issue for many countries. Loans have been provided by the World Bank as well as from the Chinese Export-Import Bank. In Nigeria, the National Broadcasting Commission has warned that the June 2015 analogue switch-off deadline may not be achieved without the availability of sufficient funds. Similar warnings have been made in Zimbabwe.
In Kenya, delays to digital switchover are due to the legal battle between broadcasters and the Communications Authority (CAK). The three leading commercial broadcasters, The Standard Group, Nation Media Group, Royal Media Services, have not not only challenged the CAK’s plans for analogue switch-off but also its process for allocating DTT network licenses. As a result, the Court of Appeals has postponed analogue switch-off in Nairobi until 30 September 2014 as well as cancelled the DTT network license held by the Pan African Network Group (PANG) which is owned by StarTimes. The case is now before the Supreme Court which has already declared that the pay-DTT operators StarTimes and GOtv do not have the right to transmit the television services of the commercial broadcasters without their consent. Because these television services have been removed from the pay-DTT platforms, the Consumers Federation of Kenya (COFEK) is suing the pay operators on behalf of their subscribers for failing to provide them with the free-to-air service offering. Previously, COFEK had successfully challenged CAK’s plans to complete analogue switch-off in Nairobi by the end of 2012.
Completing analogue switch-off by June 2015 is likely to be a challenge for many African countries without disenfranchising large numbers of television viewers. Before switch-off can take place, viewers will need to be informed about the process and equipped with DTT receivers. And while the launch of pay-DTT platforms has facilitated the launch and operation of DTT networks, it has created a perception that the DTT platform only offers pay services. Viewers will now need to be informed of the availability of free-to-air services. However, such activities will only be possible with the availability of sufficient financial resources and cooperation within the broadcast industry.
Source: Natalie Mouyal, on behalf of the DigiTAG Project Office
DigiTAG is an association of stakeholders in the digital terrestrial TV industry and has members from broadcasting, network operators, regulatory, and professional equipment and consumer electronics manufacturing organisations throughout the world. DigiTAG has recently re-launched with new Statutes and the mission of defending and promoting digital terrestrial television on a worldwide basis, and, notably, will work tirelessly to protect spectrum for broadcasting, regardless of the technical standard used on the DTT platform.
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