Imperatives for Digital Switchover

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PERSPECTIVE

The Chief Operating Officer, NTA-Star TV Network Limited, Tunde Aina, writes what on should be done by government and all stakeholders to achieve the digital switchover

The Digital Switchover otherwise known as the DSO is the Nigerian Government’s programme of migration of television from analogue to digital. The Nigerian DSO journey started with the inauguration of the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC); this body was made up of experts and stakeholders in the broadcast industry and it was tasked with charting a road map for Nigeria in the DSO journey. The report of the PAC was submitted to government in 2008 but wasn’t considered until 2012 when a white-paper, based largely on the recommendations of PAC, was released.

Unfortunately, some of the recommendations of the white paper were already obsolete by the time it was released; this was because major events and milestones which couldn’t have been foreseen by the experts who constituted PAC had taken place. The white-paper was completely silent about pay Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) probably because it almost didn’t exist in Africa at the time the PAC made its recommendations, but between 2008 when the PAC report was submitted to government and 2012 when the government white paper was released, two DTT pay-tv operators already entered the Nigerian market. NTA-Star TV Network also known as StarTimes Nigeria and GOTV an offshoot of Multichoice began an aggressive roll-out of DTT infrastructure across the country, with the benefit of hindsight, the recommendations of PAC needed to have been updated before it became a whitepaper in order to factor in recent events that had a major impact on the industry.

The whitepaper tried to provide guidelines for the licensing and operations of various stake-holders but fell short in the specifics and left a lot to various interpretations; while it could be argued that recommending local manufacture of set-top boxes was beneficial to the industry and the country in general, it is doubtful if 13 set-top box(STB) manufacturers can survive. There was no mention of encryption standards or middleware, a new set of standards was proposed and approved consequently all viewers must purchase the new set-top boxes to watch free TV channels after the completion of the DSO. It has been challenging to find the funds to subsidize the set-top boxes and the current economic indices makes it unlikely that government will be able to find the funds to fund the subsidy; the country has more serious infrastructure challenges competing for scarce resources.

From the foregoing, it is very obvious that trying to implement the whitepaper as is will not achieve the objectives of the DSO, some work still need to be done to make more specific recommendation in areas where the guidelines are open to various interpretations. There is also the need to obtain legislative endorsement for the DSO to provide the required legal protection for the whole process. Funding is also a big challenge and there is no hope of getting any funds legally appropriated if the National Assembly have not officially “recognised” and probably legislate on the DSO.

The white-paper did not recommend having a separate company engaged in content aggregation but with the benefit of hindsight, it would be duplication of efforts if signal distributors have to all invest in content aggregation infrastructure. If content producers have to bear the cost of content aggregation, they will need to pay more than one company for the same service because the current system of allocating signal distributors to different cities by fiat would have required each content producer dealing with all signal distributors to achieve nationwide content aggregation coverage.

If we get engrossed in this white-paper mania, we may fail to notice that NTA-Star and GOTV currently cover most of the country with Digital Terrestrial Television, or that the average Nigerian household already has a subsidised digital set top box from the many available DTT or DTH providers. Let us imagine a situation where government directs the existing operators to carry freeTV channels under mutually agreed terms, directs all operators to patronize only local set-top Box manufacturers, and collects the digital access funds through existing pay or freeTV carriers. The only sore thumb will be the fate of licensed signal distributors since there is no compelling reason for a new roll-out in areas where DTT infrastructure already exist, a solution can be found that ensures all players are assured of some protection for their investments.

The suggestions made in this write-up are completely hypothetical and require further investigations and discussions among the major players in the TV industry to determine their practicability. However one thing is very clear, to achieve the objectives of the DSO in the light of current realities, we need to do things differently.