Since the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) resolved through GE O6 that all member countries must go digital, Nigeria’s resolve to switch over from analogue to digital has been dogged by several hiccups. The process commenced in Nigeria in 2016 with only one state, Plateau (March 16, 2016 and the FCT in December 23, 2016) partially covered. The Director General of the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, Mallam Ish’Aq Modibo Kawu, tells Stanley Nkwazema about the challenges, and why subsidy must be removed to realise the full switch-over
Tell us about your background.
I was appointed as the DG of NBC on the 24th of May last year. On the 1st of February this year, it was exactly 40 years that I have been a broadcaster and journalist. I started to work in Radio Nigeria on the 1st of February 1977, during FESTAC. At that time I was the youngest person employed by Radio Nigeria; I started out as a Studio Manager Trainee. I eventually became an announcer. So I have been announcer, news reader on the National Network as far back as 1980. My contemporaries are well known broadcasters in Nigeria; John Momoh, Frank Oshodi, Sheyi Martins, Bisi Olatilo and Sonny Irabor. At the moment, I am concluding a doctoral degree in political science at the Nigerian Military University, the Nigerian Defence Academy, NDA, with focus on Strategic Studies. When I finished working at radio at the local level and I was doing international broadcasting, I was head-hunted by the Kwara State Government. I took part in an interview and came out tops to become the pioneer General Manager of the Kwara State Television. I started on the 1st of February, 1997. I did that for five years till the 7th of May 2002 when I resigned the appointment and was appointed as Editor of Daily Trust newspaper. I left Ilorin to come to Abuja, subsequently becoming the chairman of their editorial board. I coordinated the project for them to start the radio and television arm of the newspaper. I was Africa Editor because also we started the African of the Year project and published the magazine they called Kilimanjaro. In 2011, I resigned the appointment because my cousin was running to be the Governor of Kwara State and I wanted to assist him. At the same time, I had taken the decision that having worked in the radio, television and newspaper; I wanted to do a multimedia company, so the company put up platforms in all this different media, we had sound studios, television studio, editing suites, language laboratory and all that in Abuja. That was what I was running when as well writing my column in Vanguard newspaper and chairing the Editorial board of Blueprint Newspaper when I was appointed last year. All my life since when I was 16 years, I have been in broadcasting and journalism in general.
The DSO pilot launch took off last year in Jos and Abuja. Why the gap after the Abuja launch 11 months after.
Absolutely, you are right about the gap. What we did after the switch-on in Abuja onDecember 23, a decision was taken that we would launch in six states of the federation. The decision to launch the DSO in Abuja was a conscious one because the people who take all the policy decisions in government are people who are based in the city. Every time we discussed DSO with them, it was clear most of them listened to you politely, but they didn’t understand what the whole thing was about. We felt that if we did a launch in Abuja immediately, it would give them a clear understanding of what this process was all about. If you recall that in Jos, the pilot gave the people in Plateau 15 channels, then we took a decision that we would do 30 in Abuja. That was a major propaganda element for the process. Then we decided that in Nigeria, people are always sensitive. We did Jos , they will say it’s a northern Nigeria and we did Abuja it’s the same northern state. Why don’t you go to other geo-political zones and do one state each there? And because we have two signal distributors, we gave three to one signal distributor and three to the other one. But in the period after the launch in Abuja and the decision to go to the six states, we had challenges. We had not paid all our stakeholders, the Set Top Box manufacturers, that have put in so much money into the process we were owing about N6 billion and this money was accumulating interest in the bank. It took a while for government to return the money to us; the money that had been taken into the recovery account of the EFCC. Even, while the money was returned to us, we were having the challenge of the bank, needing to do reconciliation of what the interest was going to be. Also, we needed to be careful of giving out the money. Eventually, we reached a decision. Originally, the decision was that about 650,000 boxes imported by the Nigerian government at subsidised rates. In Abuja and Plateau almost 400,000 boxes have been used. We appointed a different call centre in Abuja and it took a while for them, to be put through the process, putting all the technology in place also. A lot of those things came to play and delayed the process. Also the signal distributors had to do roll-out. And as this was being done, we entered all kinds of unnecessary controversies which slowed down the whole process and people preferred to go to the media to make insinuations, to raise issues but the position of the National Broadcasting Commission was always that this is a very challenging and historical process for Nigeria. We had never done a digital switch over before. It was always theoretically discussing it. But Jos allowed all the elements to come together: the signal distributors, the content providers, the aggregators, the middleware providers and all. It was the very first time we did it and the lessons were learnt from the Jos launch helped us to do the Abuja launch. It collectively informed our decision to go to the six states. The problem immediately was that DSO success in Jos and Abuja relatively became its own challenge in the sense that people became very expectant in all parts of Nigeria. While we were putting infrastructures in place, in some of the cities, the people who were selling boxes had taken boxes to different parts of the country. The decision we have taken now is that we have met in plenary, bringing everybody together. A decision has been taken that we are going to do launches in Kaduna as well as in Ilorin which will affect the work of the two signal distributors, Pinnacle in Kaduna and ITS in Ilorin. Our set-up box manufacturers have assured us that we have 250,000 boxes now on hand for use in the different destinations.
People have asked me the question, why are you doing it in phases? The answer is very simple. It is the logistics especially the financial end of it. We need a lot of funds to be able to do the switch-over in Nigeria.
In Nigeria with the population of about 192 million people , you are looking at between 36 and 40 million set-top boxes in Nigeria and that is a huge amount of boxes which We need to produce it in our systems or also import and you know the components in terms of foreign currency. But hopefully by Thursday November 30, we are likely to go to Kaduna and by Thursday December 7, we are most likely to be in Ilorin. In between, we would have finished putting infrastructures in Gombe, Delta and Enugu as well as Osogbo. Hopefully before the end of this year we will now take the decision on the states we are going to launch and hopefully by that time the governors must have put money in for the set-up boxes
There seems to be a confusion on the roles of signal distributors, the content aggregators, middleware providers, content owners and set-up box manufacturers.
Theoretically, there should be no confusion. The White Paper, which is the basis of the entire digital switch-over process, is very clear about it. Nigeria took a decision as part of an international process that we are going to license two signal distributors in Nigeria because you will no longer have stations producing content and also carrying their own signals. In the wisdom of the Nigerian government, since government has decided and invested in 150 sites across the country, we cannot allow these sites to waste, so a company should come out of NTA system to become the public based signal distribution company. That is how ITS came into being. Secondly, the same White Paper went on to say that we should have another company out of the private sector. So a public competitive bidding was done and Pinnacle Communication won and was made the second signal distributor. But then, there were challenges when Pinnacle for all kinds of reasons took NBC to court and that litigation was dragging for about a two-year period . When I was appointed the DG, one of the first decisions I took was to get Pinnacle to come out of court which they agreed. As part of the settlement, they were also appointed to be the signal distributors for the Abuja switch-over which was a very successful process. So they are back in the process.
There has been a deluge of complaints of poor signal distribution by the providers.
In Jos , we covered about 12 local governments , we haven’t covered the entire Plateau State. Our signal distributors in Plateau are going to put transmission points in other parts of Plateau. That is one of those things we also discussed. In Abuja, topography is an issue in digital broadcasting. Digital broadcasting is almost like FM broadcasting, if you have areas where there are hills, there will be areas where you will be unable to get signals. In Abuja metropolitan area, the outline is that there is a problem. Our signal distributor, Pinnacle Communications, is obliged to put gap filler transmitters that will boost signals to those places where there is no signal. But they always have to wait till after the rainy seasons, thank God it’s over now, As I am talking to you today, November 2, I was in the offices of Pinnacle, they were offloading these transmitters they will use for the gap fillers. I am sure that in a couple of weeks, they should cover the entire Abuja. It is very important because from the perspective of our set-up box manufacturers, we have to do Analogue Switch Off (ASO) in Abuja. If we do not do that, we are going to have a problem with the market. If we switch off all analogue transmitters in Abuja now, people will be obliged to buy set-up boxes and our box manufacturers will be sure that when they produce, there will be market for it.
Did NBC actually vet Kwese TV, being promoted by Econnet Wireless, TSTV and others before they commenced operations? What is their future?
We did vet them. These are Direct to Home (DTH) channels. It is the digital terrestrial television that will go to the homes of majority of Nigerians. If you want to do a DTH, you can go and subscribe to Multichoice, Kwese and others. As I speak to you now, there is nothing to hide; Mo Abudu’s Ebony Life TV has an application with us to also do a DTH which will focus on women and youths. It’s a niche that people can occupy and do things in. The central thing is that the Nigerian constitution obliges the state to give opportunity to Nigerians to watch news and get entertainment and information that is what it is all about. That is what our own FreeTv is about. It doesn’t clash at all with those who are applying to do DTH systems. You can pay for their set-top boxes. But as a matter of fact, on the long run, they all have to come on to the platforms of our signal distributors. You will get to a point where you can get Pay TV even on your boxes.
The distribution of boxes is also experiencing hiccups. Only Gospell, out of the 11 licensed manufacturers, has a functional factory in Nigeria. Each licensee paid the sum of N50m as licensing fees. What is happening?
We do need boxes. And as you know it is about a 40 million box market. What happened was that the first sets of boxes were actually imported from China and the decision was taken that that was going to be the first phase. As part of the contract, they are all supposed to put in place assembly plants that will then graduate to production plants. Interestingly, one of them, Gospell Digital Technology, GDT, has been able to make a transition from assembly plant to putting in place the first Surface Mount Technology (SMT) line in West Africa. In the same Calabar, SMK has an assembly point but it hasn’t made the transition , In Oshogbo, there is a company that is already doing some kind of production cum assembly. Here in Abuja, Trefonics, then in Lagos, Digitunes. But with all of these, it was always that they wanted to be sure of a few things. There were issues that whether we should have a monopoly of middleware or we should have an alternative. Eventually, that decision has been taken. There will be an alternative one. Secondly, how are the boxes going to get to Nigeria? Are they going to be subsidised? We are no longer going to subsidise boxes. The truth is that it is no longer realistic. It will be market driven and because there is the need for Nigerians to have these boxes, and there is a market for it, then these people are going to get the kind of support expected from the financial institutions to be able to put in place those facilities for them to produce for a 40 million market for the set-top box system in Nigeria.
Do you think the business model you inherited from your predecessor is faulty?
In fact, if you noticed, even today, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, when he addressed our meeting with stakeholders, he mentioned the fact that the business model that we inherited is not one that we can continue to work with. We need to fine tune it. That’s why I told you that we decided to put in place an in-house team to study the entire process. The second part was to get a lawyer of repute to help us to look at it. Once we get a report from the lawyer, it will help us to accelerate the process and fine tuning the business model. I think that in the long run, the DSO process will be a win-win for all the stakeholders.
Let’s go back to the DSO launch. Many people still don’t understand what the DSO is all about.
I must own up that we are not communicating DSO enough. As part of the stakeholder agreements, we have opportunities on all electronic media in Nigeria to have at least ten minutes per day of communication on DSO. We are not using it enough, as NBC, as Digiteam, we have to review the need to communicate the whole process to Nigerians in different languages in different media. Secondly, I have just made an allusion to it in my response. It is part of an international agreement from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that countries should make the transition from analogue to digital and free up frequencies that we can use for new things in telecommunication and other uses, military technology, signals and others. In the context of Nigeria, it offers this platform to then begin to give opportunities for television stations to concern themselves more with their primary duty of providing content. If television is going to be 24 hours because that’s the way it is going to be in the new reality, you need the content and then the issue of creating new opportunities for young people. These are the things we need to communicate to Nigerians for them to see the benefits of the DSO. Then the box helps us to measure audience so we can definitely tell Nigerians, x number of people are watching particular programmes. And then the stations producing these programmes can then take them to advertisers. Advertising money follows audiences because in reality content providers do not sell air time, they actually sell audiences and you can actually know the demographics of the audience that is watching a particular programme. You can say at 8pm on a Monday, x programme coming from this content provider has 2, 3, 4 million Nigerians watching across all the geo-political zones in Nigeria. We can measure it using our set-top boxes. That gives an opportunity because the advertiser can put in money in because he knows the number of people watching and the demographics. Secondly, the same box can help Nigerians to communicate with government because government can post some information. On the hand, Nigerians can tell government what they feel about the democracy and the development process.