Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports that while the digital television switch over project appears to be in limbo; as Nigeria failed for a third time to meet the digital switch over deadline, the current NBC leadership is frittering away money that was raised for that purpose by the former DG of the NBC, Mr. EmekaMba. Despite a recent NBC Nigerian Broadcasting Code Review in Kano, which concluded that the June 2017 Digital Switch Over (DSO) deadline was sacrosanct, the same commission has yet again announced its inability to meet the deadline.
Barely two weeks before it announced Nigeria’s failure for the third time to successfully switch over to digital, the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, THISDAY checks has revealed, confirmed payment of N2.5b to one of the three licensed signal distributors. The payment was allegedly done two weeks ago apparently without proper due process.
The former DG of the NBC, Mr. EmekaMba, who ironically is facing criminal charges for the process he adopted in the raising the money for the DSO, despite securing all requisite board, ministerial and presidential approvals was very close to achieving the DSO before he was unceremoniously removed from office.
Information available to this reporter show that approval for the payment of N2.5 billion to the company owned by an Abuja-based businessman came from for the office of the Minister of Information and Culture. The company won the bid for the second signal distribution license in 2014 and is currently operating that license as one of the three licensed broadcast signal distributors who are to provide the technical infrastructure services that will be used to distribute digital terrestrial television signals across the country.
Stakeholders have been clamouring that the NBC should set appropriate rules and conditions with regards to carriage of licensed TV channels on the infrastructure of the signal carriers, such as carriage rates and geographical coverage areas, as well the thorny issue of conflicts over areas of operation, since all three broadcast signal companies have the same license to operate across the country.
Curiously, the commission allegedly went ahead to secretly pay a licensed private operator, the sum of N2.5b. According to sources, the decision was based on the mistaken belief that since NTA-owned signal distribution company, ITS, was given a grant of N1.5b by the previous management, the company should also be paid even though it is privately owned and had provided evidence during its licensing bid it was financial capable to roll out operations across the country. What other stakeholders that have questioned the propriety of this payment do not understand is why the company is being paid monies that should otherwise be used to finance the DSO roll out.
ITS, the first broadcast signal distributor which is an offshoot of NTA was specifically carved out to serve as the government owned signal distributor given the strategic importance of broadcasting to national security interests. Therefore, the funds allocated to it by the former DG was governmentâ€™s share of the financial burden needed as take-off grant for signal distributors; and formed part of the larger DSO budget which was vetted and approved by the former president.
In the case of this private company, it is alleged that the approval for the payment came from the Presidency. Interestingly, the current DGâ€™s appointment was said to have been facilitated by the owner of the private company which is a beneficiary of the N2.5 billion.
How a private company that is a licensee of the NBC is receiving N2.5 billion from government remains extremely curious and unclear. As a licensee, the company is supposed to pay the NBC license fees and other regulatory charges and certainly not be paid by government for any reason. What justification can exist for giving N2.5 billion to a company that competed in a licensing round, got its initial N2 billion license fee reduced by the former DG to N600 million for a 15 year license on grounds that the winner would have significant roll out obligations? Why is this same company receiving N2.5 billion from the government; and in secret? How was the sum of N2.5 billion computed, based on what parameters, and for what purpose? What happens to the other signal distributor, MTS which ostensibly is owned by all the licensed private and state owned broadcasters under the auspices of the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) currently chaired by Chief John Momoh? Will they also be given N2.5billion?
Interested members of the public and other stakeholders have been kept in the dark concerning the process so far. How many set-top boxes have been switched on? What is the extent of the digital penetration? What are the number of new channels and services now available to viewers? How much is a set-top box sold? And if there are consumer complaints, where or to whom are they to be addressed?