Bickering: Can Nigeria Move Forward in Digital Broadcasting?

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Osola Junaid
Ordinarily, one would have kept quiet and ignored several misinformation, half-baked truths and double speak bedeviling Nigeria’s process of transition from analogue to digital terrestrial broadcasting. The process is unambiguous when viewed against the fact that since April 2012, government’s White Paper to that effect, outlined the different roles and expected hurdles to be faced in the process.

Interestingly, after missing several deadlines on the switch over since the last date of June 17th 2017, there have been cacophony of voices and unwarranted publications by individuals oblivious of the damage said serialisation is causing the system, hoping to capitalise on the mayhem and disrupt the process to their own selfish end.

Recently, there have been lots of murmurings about the state and progress of the Nigerian Digital Switch Over (DSO) and government White Paper on the Report of the Presidential Action Committee on transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting in Nigeria dated April 2012.

It is no longer news that Nigeria, having missed deadlines by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to Switchover; once in June 2015 and the most recent in June 2017, may not do much this year after slating Kaduna and Kwara states for the next phase. Not many will believe the fact that most countries in the ITU’s (Europe, Middle East, Africa, Mongolia and former Soviet Union in Region 1) group have gone far and will soon leave us in the cold.

Indeed, The DSO commenced in Jos, Plateau State in March 2016 and six months later, was also launched in Abuja on the 22nd of December. Progress has been slow to say the least, and as of recent, there has been little or no movement even after almost 11 months from the last launch in Abuja.

Throwing stones in Glass Houses
Not a lot of people would be convinced or inspired if they were to use the state of the Abuja launch of the DSO as a yardstick for judging the ability of the Federal Government of Nigeria to successfully roll out across the country. After a year, the FCT has still not received full DTT signal coverage. There are lots of areas even in Abuja and environs where there is little or no signal coupled with numerous complaints about fluctuating services.
The excuse that the entire Abuja landscape due to its peculiar terrain could not be covered since last December due to the rainy season is one joke that sounds like we do not fully understand the technical process of digitisation. That the Signal distributor has procured and is about to install the filler transmitters to cover the unreachable areas is funny and can’t be technically explained.

When the above has been taken under consideration, one begs to ask why the Federal Government or the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has not appointed more or better Signal Distributors that are more capable of handling the experience-driven role.

Clarity and the Government White paper
However, it is prudent to first of all state the recommendations of the White Paper on the report of the Presidential Advisory Committee that has recently been under public debate and scrutiny. For the purpose of this, it is therefore expedient to draw attention to and highlight the following recommendations of the White Paper with item 13 being most important.

Clearly spelt out, recommendation 10 talks about the restructuring of the current analogue system in Nigeria where every broadcaster is also a Signal Distributor; this system is both inefficient and costly. Separating the functions is to maximise the utilization of broadcast infrastructure and improve on the quality of content creation. Truly, this makes perfect sense and can be justified.

In Recommendation 11, the committee notes that there are 3 basic options for licensing SD’s, namely that each broadcaster implements its own SD network; a number of multiplex operators are licensed to provide SD for a limited number of broadcasters each and a singular BSD is licensed to provide the SD for all broadcasters in the entire country.

From what may be understood to be economic, commercial and security reasons, the committee approved that more than one SD be licensed in addition to the NTA, the licensed public SD; and others would come on stream as market exigencies dictate. It was also accepted that the recommendation to establish a minimum of two and a maximum of three SD’s for a transitional period taking effect from 1st January, 2012 to 1st January, 2015. We are now at the end of 2017 and this ineffective monopoly still exists to the detriment of the DSO. Technically, the life span of licenses issued the Signal distributors have expired and need to be renewed or reviewed in line with the White paper recommendations.

Under recommendation 12, the White Paper clearly states that in order to maximise existing broadcast infrastructure, the massive broadcast transmission infrastructure owned by the NTA, VON and FRCN should form the backbone for the new BSD. This has been underway and is progressing positively inspiring confidence.

Now, recommendation 13 clearly states that the Committee considered three options of the ownership structure as follows: “Option A: (Public/Private Sector Partnership) which provides for the establishment of a new broadcasting signal distributor in which the Federal Government will own a majority stake (a minimum of 51% stake); the equity participation of the private sector portion of this new signal distributor should be offered through a bid process; this option will allow a buy-in for all the industry stakeholders and also give government a controlling influence to ensure neutrality in the operations of this distributor.

Option B: which provides for establishing a broadcasting signal distributor that is ‘wholly owned’ by the federal government but commercially operated; this option takes advantage of the huge investments government has made over the years in both NTA, FRCN, and Voice of Nigeria

Option C: which provides for establishing a broadcasting signal distributor that is ‘100% privately owned’; the option will promote further deregulation in the industry and inject substantial private sector funds into the industry.

Of the above three noted recommendations of ownership structure, the government only accepted options A and B. This begs the question of how and where option C; a 100% privately owned Signal Distributor sprung up from and was licensed by the NBC. This was expressly forbidden by the recommendations highlighted above.
The committee also recommended in this same section that the federal government provide seed grants for the federal government-owned Broadcast Signal Distributor for the establishment of the new company.

The House report left so many yawning gaps and failed to solve the much needed questions on why the NBC licensed a Signal Distributor that is 100% Privately-Owned when it was clearly not approved or accepted by the federal government in the White Paper according to Recommendation 13.1.
Why has the National Broadcasting Commission not licensed other Broadcast Signal Distributors that are capable of performing the tasks at hand as recommended by the White Paper even after the transitional period of 2012-2015 has lapsed? This is one big question begging for answer.