Achieving Digital Switchover with Technology Adoption

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Although it remains doubtful if Nigeria will achieve the digital switchover by June 2017, adopting the relevant technology could make the difference, writes Emma Okonji

 Nigeria is among the several African countries that are yet to migrate from analogue broadcasting to digital broadcasting, otherwise known as digital switchover (DSO).

Following new technology trends sweeping across the globe, the International Telecoms Union (ITU), the UN specialised agency for allocation of global radio spectrum, had asked all countries that were yet to migrate, to do so at appointed dates, to avoid radio frequency interference with other countries that are digitally compliant.

Nigeria had in June 2012 and June 2015, agreed with ITU, to conclude digital migration but failed twice to meet up with the dates, a situation that compelled the federal government to fix June 2017 for another opportunity to prepare for digital migration.

Aside huge financial investment, technology infrastructure had always been the bane of achieving digital migration in Africa, Nigeria inclusive. But StarTimes, a leading digital-TV operator in Africa, serving nearly 10 million subscribers and covering 90 per cent of the continent’s population with a massive distribution network, has assured Nigeria and the rest of Africa, that achieving a complete switchover to digital migration, would entail the adoption of a unified system of technology.

StarTimes vision 

StarTimes is of the view that for Africa to achieve the complete switchover to digital transmission, it must adopt a unified system of technology.

StarTimes President, Pang Xinxing, in his speech at the 7th African Digital TV Development Seminar in Beijing, China recently, with the theme ‘Advance Hand-in-Hand to Jointly Create the Future’, stated how Africa could realise the target of providing affordable digital TV to every household through the adoption of unified technology and business models.

“Digitisation is a complex technologically intensive process that also requires huge capital investment. It should be seen as a social project because it will affect how people receive and share information,” Xingxing said.

The world-wide digitisation process is being undertaken to free up spectrum for the growth of the information technology industry. The transition to digital terrestrial television broadcasting is a complex process, requiring the involvement of legislators, regulators, broadcasting companies such as content producers, broadcasters and network operators, including manufacturers and viewers.

2017 is a critical year for Africa to meet the analogue switch-off deadline and by following a pan-African approach to technology, financing and content development – all citizens can be guaranteed of enjoying a digital life.

Apart from clearer images, increased channels for content and easier reception, the availability of radio spectrum will allow expansion of the internet-based technology.

Expert’s view

Tanzania’s Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of information, Culture, Arts and Sports; Professor Elisante Ole Gabriel, said: “A completely digitised Africa is vital as digital broadcasting empowers citizens especially in the rural livelihoods with necessary information.”

The minister, who spoke during a session on Universal Digitalisation at The 7th African Digital TV Development Seminar in Beijing, China, said advances in technology meant that more African citizens would be able to access information using internet-based technology.

“Through digital broadcasting, farmers can get information about the market for their crops and also access extension services where access to experts is limited,” the minister said.

Global perspective on DSO

The theme of this year’s Africa Digital TV Development seminar was ‘Universalise Digital TV and Enjoy Smart Life’ and the seminar was attended by almost 400 participants from 43 countries for the main purpose of sharing knowledge around the digitisation process.

All countries are required to make a complete switch from analogue transmission to digital, following the International Telecommunication Union agreement.

A digital broadcasting plan, covering 116 countries, mainly in Africa and Europe, was agreed to for the frequency bands 174–230 MHz and 470–862 MHz at the ITU Regional Radio Communication Conference in Geneva in June 2006.

According to this plan known as the GE06, the analogue switch-off date was 17 June 2015, except for some countries in some frequency bands where the deadline is 17 June 2020).

The GE06 Agreement of the ITU established the Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting Frequency Plan in the radio frequency bands for the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Band and Very High Frequency (VHF) Band.

With the final deadline fast approaching, more African countries are seeking to achieve a complete digital switch, but have faced challenges in terms of technology, infrastructure and financing.

Each country has their own unique situations but StarTimes said it would continue to prove itself as a reliable partner in the implementation of digital migration.

Transmission network 

Transmission standards of broadcasting continue to evolve and by adopting a unified approach to adopting technology across Africa, countries can achieve economies of scale and convenience of connectivity.

StarTimes said it had established an enormous network system which is able to provide service to tens of millions of subscribers. With a signal distribution platform, a Direct-to-Home satellite platform, and a digital terrestrial TV platform, StarTimes has made its signal available throughout the African continent, Europe continent and part of Asian continent.

Direct-broadcast satellite television, also known as “Direct to home” (DTH), is delivering television programming using signals relayed from space radio stations, such as digital video broadcast (DVB) satellites.

In DBSTV systems, signals are relayed from a direct broadcast satellite on the wavelength and are completely digital. Some transmissions and channels are unencrypted and therefore free-to-air or free-to-view, while many other channels are transmitted with encryption, requiring a subscription.

Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) is an implementation of digital technology. DTT provides more channels and better quality of picture and sound, using aerial broadcasts to a conventional antenna instead of a satellite dish or cable connection. DTT is transmitted on radio frequencies through the airwaves, which is similar to standard analogue television except for one primary difference, the use of multiplex transmitters to allow reception of multiple channels on a single frequency range.

Currently the transmission standard for DTT is DVB-T2 H.264 but is soon to be upgraded to H.265.

Xingxing, however, suggested that for the purpose of standardisation, coding should follow the existing system of DVB-S2.

He noted that there was need to consider advances in technology as African countries go digital.

“StarTimes as a technology company has continued to innovate and is also developing the next generation of products for digital entertainment and apps, to support a wide range of content formats,” he said.

Legislation against obsolete technology 

In order to achieve hitch-free digital migration, experts have advised that African countries must begin to develop legislation and policies against the introduction of outdated technology on their markets.

According to Xingxing, regulations around the use and importation of analogue or second-hand digital broadcast equipment should be discouraged, as such items are electronic waste.

“Africa is on a steady march forward in terms of digitisation and should take full advantage of being late-comers to the field. Late adoption of digital technology means, more African countries stand to benefit from cheaper but more efficient systems and will also allow for easier technology and content sharing. Many parts of Africa still face challenges in terms of electricity supply and even access but in recent times new approaches and technologies have been developed to ensure that all parts of the continent can be covered by a digital signal and a minimal cost,”Xingxing  said.

Benefits of digital migration 

Speaking on the benefits of digital migration, he said one of the benefits is that it automatically opens up opportunities for African governments to provide more internet based services while providing a platform for more broadcasters and content providers to come on board.

The increase in content channels will see an increase in employment of people in the creative industry. New broadcast stations no longer have to invest in transmission equipment and so allow lower production costs and additional players to the information technology sector will also translate in an increase in revenue from taxes to governments.

Challenges

Financing national digital migration process has been a hurdle that many countries are yet to overcome but with the support of the Chinese government, several financial institutes have made long-term low-interest loans available. African countries could tap into such opportunities to achieve digital migration.

“StarTimes has successfully partnered various governments in establishing public-private-partnership (PPP) in implementing digital migration.

“Joint ventures also mean that governments can focus limited national budgets on other essential sectors such as education, health and development sectors, while ensuring that the digital broadcast sector commences as a viable business and social endeavor,” Xingxing said.

Although the Director General, National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, had assured Nigerians of a successful switchover, Nigeria must however, consider the adoption of a unified technology, to expedite the migration process.