By Paul Omogbai-Musa
Around the African continent, the digital age has spun almost everyone giddy. Understandably. The internet, as we know, offers users almost limitless possibilities for whatever use they choose to put it and is available on various devices: computers, smartphones, tablets etc.
With the internet, television viewing and video content consumption in general have changed radically, especially through the impact of the millennial generation. As such, the arrival of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) on the African continent has created a new content distribution paradigm, which offers television viewing anytime and anywhere and has bred the hugely optimistic view that satellite television on the continent is endangered.
The basic difference between IPTV and satellite television is that instead of receiving television programmes as broadcast signals via antenna or satellite dish, they are streamed through internet connection. IPTV, therefore, enables users to watch television as though they were browsing the web, implying that they could pick and choose what programmes to watch and when to watch them. It is essentially an on-demand service. That IPTV offers the freedom to choose what and when to watch is widely advertised as the death knell for satellite television in Africa, where the mobile phone boom, which has led to widespread adoption of smartphones.
Those possessed of this view reckon that satellite television, which operates a monthly contract model and offers channels in bundles for which subscribers must pay whether or not they watch all, does not offer freedom of choice.
The freedom of choice has equally fed the belief that IPTV is cheaper as the user pays only for what is watched. I would kill to have those freedoms, which many in the Western world and some parts of Asia currently enjoy with IPTV.
Africa, however, is a different kettle of fish. According to 2017 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) data, the proportion of internet users in Arab states was 43.7 per cent compared to 21.8 per cent in Africa, which has one of the worldâ€™s lowest fixed broadband subscriptions rates at 0.5 per 100 inhabitants. Nigeriaâ€™s broadband penetration level, according to the National Communications Commission (NCC), stands at 26 percent.
As seductive as its promises are to Africans, IPTV is no great viewing option in most parts of the continent, where the infrastructure for long-form content streaming is unavailable. What is required for IPTV is not the spotty and slothful kind of connection, which can only handle 1 to 10Mbps, but a broadband line with about 10 times higher information carrying capacity or bandwidth of between 10 and 100Mbps.
Network latency or â€œbufferingâ€ is another disincentive. Since content is transmitted via the internet, the chances of transmission delays for the IPTVuser are high.
This is because video content must go through the uplink process (uploaded on the IPTV servers) first before getting to the viewer via the downlink process. As a result, there is always an interval between the simulation and response of signals and video links, a situation that latency limits the maximum rate at which information can be transmitted. There is often a limit on the amount of information being delivered at a given time.
With the kind of internet connection available in most parts of Africa, content streaming is close to an ordeal. As a subscriber continuously struggles to connect his device to the internet, data is being consumed, even when not effectively used.
Can IPTV be considered cheaper? No chance.
To get IPTV running, a subscriber is required to have a set-top box and an active internet router on which he/she pays a monthly subscription. To stream content in long form, copious data volumes, in excess of 50GB monthly are required. Various predictions about data costs crashing on the African continent, so far, have amounted to fantasy. Average cost of 50 GB in Nigeria is N20,000 monthly.
Therefore, heavy data usage at back-breaking costs, unreliability of internet signals, which affect audio-visual quality in IPTV, are issues the satellite television subscriber does not have to deal with.
Then, there is the not exactly small matter of privacy breach in IPTV usage. While IPTV service providers continue to assure users that their privacy is protected, cases of third parties hacking into providersâ€™ databases and stealing personal information are well documented, worry satellite TV subscribers do not have.
â€“ Omogbai-Musa, an engineer, writes from Benin.