Addressing Africa's Challenges in Digital Switch Over

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Emma Okonji posits that the recently released white paper on Africa’s digital migration by Eutelsat, could be the best option in addressing Nigeria’s challenges in achieving full coverage in the digital switch over regime

Since 2006 when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nation agency, issued the Geneva 2006 agreement, signalling the development of ‘all-digital’ terrestrial television services, African countries, including Nigeria, have been battling to complete the migration process from analogue television broadcasting to digital television broadcasting. So far only six African countries have completed the migration exercise, otherwise known as Digital Switch Over (DSO).

The idea to adopt DSO is a global initiative, based on technology evolution, where digital contents for television viewing are fast becoming the order of the day. The motivation behind the transition was to stimulate Information and Communications Technology (ICT) applications and make more efficient use of spectrum through the digital dividend that comes with the phasing out analogue television.
Like Nigeria, other African countries that are yet to complete the DSO process, are faced majorly with infrastructure and funding challenges, because of the huge cost in digital migration.

With a good intention to join the rest of the world in the entire process of digital migration, Nigeria, in agreement with ITU, initially chose June 17, 2012 as its deadline to complete the DSO, but failed to meet up with the deadline for lack of adequate preparation on the part of government. June 17, 2015, was again chosen, but Nigeria still could not meet up with the deadline. Having missed the deadline twice, Nigeria, again, chose June 17, 2017 for the completion of the DSO process, but still could not cover 95 per cent digital access across the country, as at June 17, 2017, even though the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the government agency responsible for driving DSO in Nigeria, is insisting that so much have been achieved in the entire process of DSO since 2016.
In order to address the challenges limiting several African countries from achieving complete digital migration, Eutelsat, which has gained a leading position in digital transition, with over 10 years of pan-regional experience, last week, released a white paper that seeks to address Africa’s challenges in achieving DSO migration.

African challenges

Since the ITU declaration in Geneva 2006 on DSO, Nigeria and several African countries have been faced with infrastructure and funding challenges in meeting their obligations on DSO.
Although the transition from analogue to digital television broadcasting in Africa has so far been a slow and laborious process, even in the most developed countries, but the digital revolution is nevertheless underway in a number of countries, including Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Most African countries have pushed the responsibility of completing the DSO migration to their various ministries, but inadequate funding on the part of government, coupled with poor broadcasting infrastructure, has stalled the entire process, which Africans and the rest of the world are looking up to.

Nigeria’s limitation

Since 2012, Nigeria has thrice failed to meet the deadline it had set for itself in achieving the digital switchover initiative of ITU.
The journey towards the preparation for digital switchover actually started in Nigeria in June 17, 2006, after Nigeria signed international and regional agreement to conclude digital migration by June 17, 2012. In a bid to achieve the 2012 migration date, the federal government, in 2007, approved the process of migration, and in 2008, inaugurated a Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on transition from analogue to digital broadcasting. The committee was mandated to come up with a recommended policy, regulatory framework and a broadcasting model for the process, and in 2009, the committee submitted its report with several recommendations. Government, however, kept the recommendations for three years and did not release the white paper for digital migration, a situation that caused Nigeria to miss out on the June 17, 2012 initial date for migration.

Having missed the initial date in 2012, government was forced to shift migration date to June 17, 2015. Although the NBC was ready to conclude the migration in 2015, but it was faced with cash constraints, as the federal government did not release the necessary funds for the migration.

June 17, 2017, was, however, chosen for the third time to complete the process, but as at that date, less than 95 per cent coverage was achieved. Consequently, Nigeria is said not to have officially competed the process, even though NBC said so much have been achieved since 2016, prompting neighbouring African countries to seek to understudy the success that Nigeria has recorded in the DSO process.

Contrary to the fears of Nigerians that the country have missed out for the third time in completing the entire process of digital migration, the Director General, NBC, Ishaq Modibbo Kawu, said the June 17, 2017 date fixed by Nigeria in collaboration with ITU, was a mere benchmark date to guide Nigeria in the entire digital switchover process.
Kawu, who gave the clarification in Lagos, while briefing the media on the readiness of Nigeria to switch over to digital broadcasting, insisted that the previous dates that were not met had nothing to do with the entire switchover process, since Nigeria has achieved huge success since 2016 in the digital migration process.

He said Jos, in Plateau State and Abuja have already been switched on but with little gaps to be filled by signal distributors who are working hard to ensure full coverage of the two cities. He also said six other states, from each of the six geopolitical zones have been penciled down for the next phase launch of DSO.
“On completion of the six states in which work has commenced, NBC will select another six states for the digital switchover launch before the end of this year,” Kawu said.

Addressing the African challenges

Following the delay in transiting from analogue to digital broadcasting among African countries, Eutelsat last week, released a white paper on Africa DSO, suggesting that a combination of satellite, mobile and terrestrial infrastructure, will help African countries achieve faster DSO at significantly reduced cost.

Citing the main challenges to digital transition in the released white paper, the Vice President, Global Sales and Commercial Development for Video Business at Eutelsat, Christoph Limmer, said: “The main challenge to deploying nationwide Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) is to manage timely and equitable switchover for everyone in order not to create a digital divide that separates the homes with digital from the homes left only with analogue. The challenge is particularly steep for countries with a large landmass, mountain ranges or islands that typically remain beyond range of terrestrial networks, or with interference issues in border regions.”

According to him, most terrestrial operators deploy fibre networks and DTT towers on the basis of return on investment, meaning they concentrate on areas with a certain population density and they neglect users in more rural or semi-rural areas. This means there is a real risk that exclusive use of terrestrial technologies can permanently leave too many consumers beyond range of the benefits of digital, he said, insisting that digital homes will grow to 75 million by 2021, if there is a smooth rollout of digital transition.

Citing funding as another challenge, Limmer said the cost of a nationwide DTT network is often underestimated and can put the break on switchover. The lack of attractive local content to fill up the channels that have been made available by DTT projects and funding for a public awareness campaign are also major setbacks that need to be overcome.

The white paper, however, suggested cost-effective and time-efficient solutions that can resolve the challenges, notably hybrid networks that use terrestrial as the basic platform and satellites to deliver channels to terrestrial towers and directly to homes beyond range of digital reception.

Analysing the benefits of digital broadcasting, the white paper noted that the transition from analogue to digital TV is a logical development for the broadcasting industry, bringing significant advantages for all players across the value chain, such as the opportunity to transform the diversity, signal quality and reach of channels into viewer homes; opportunity to generate infrastructure upgrades and stimulate Africa’s vibrant content creation industry; and release of analogue frequencies for other applications such as mobile services.

According to the white paper, whereas terrestrial is historically a dominant broadcasting platform, satellite is uniquely positioned to complement terrestrial infrastructure, by extending digital TV to homes in more remote or less populated areas. Satellite broadcasting calls for no additional massive civil engineering investment, since vast regions, including rural areas, islands and border areas are automatically and ubiquitously covered.

The white paper explained that most governments that have embarked on DTT have quickly understood that, as content and signal quality progress and the number of towers grow, the efficiency of satellites for content distribution comes into play. There is in fact a crossing point where the cost of bringing content from a central hub to more than a dozen towers is less expensive and more reliable via satellite than by fibre.

The Eutelsat solution

According to the white paper, once the case for a satellite distribution network becomes compelling, the choice of frequency band comes next. In many regions C-band is the preferred choice for distributing content to terrestrial towers thanks to its resistance to rain fade. Ku-band has the advantage of enabling smaller dishes and is frequently used to complement terrestrial networks by Direct-to-Home (DTH) platform operators.

The white paper suggested that two solutions are possible in combining DTT and DTH: hybrid solutions with C and Ku-band, using C-band for feeding towers and a DTH complement in Ku-band for homes in rural areas. Alternatively, a single band solution, adopted notably in Zimbabwe, uses a single Ku-band transmission to feed towers as well as homes equipped with a Direct-to-Home dish.

Compared to the coverage and capabilities of terrestrial networks, the white paper concluded that Eutelsat’s satellites provide cost-effective and immediate access to TV customers anywhere, with consistent signal quality across the coverage, be it directly with DTH or indirectly by distributing content to other networks, including cable, DTT and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV).