Imperatives of Berthing Nigeria’s Digital Switchover

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Nigeria is signatory to the Geneva 2006 Agreement on Transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting, alongside member states of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Region 1. Thirteen years on, after breaching the nine-year window (June 2006-June 2015), Nigeria is yet to transit fully. STANLEY NKWAZEMA examines the big issues, negative expatriate lobby and dire implications of non-transition for the continental leader 

Driven by a fundamental understanding of its revolutionary technological and socio-economic benefits, the transition from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasting, more commonly termed digital switchover, has become a global passion and most modern state systems are anxious to embrace the option. Nigeria, like other member states of the ITU Region 1 signed the Geneva 2006 Agreement on Transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting.

The agreed transition period was from June 2006 to June 2015 (9-year window) However, the date was shifted to June 2017, unfortunately again, that date was not met. In 2019, 13 years after, Nigeria is yet to transit. Although Nigeria sought to embrace the new broadcast innovation, uneven and staccato policy footing and perhaps, subtle sabotage by foreign interests became hurdles. Significantly, under the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, the switchover policy appears to have enjoyed more clarity and stable patronage.

A comprehensive digital broadcast switchover would be consistent with President Buhari’s determination to diversify the economy and create more jobs. It is widely recognized that a complete digital switchover such as Nigeria contemplates, is bound to have a decisive impact on the Nigerian economy.

A switchover will make Nigeria the largest digital television market in Africa, and will also give an incredible leverage to film, music and drama productions. What Nigeria has on her hands in prospect, is a cultural explosion of revolutionary proportions. This reality was recently echoed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo when he reiterated that the digital switchover being undertaken by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) will make Nigeria the biggest digital television market in Africa.

Osinbajo expressed the position last year at the launch of the Hi-Impact TV at the Hi-Impact Planet Amusement Park and Resort, Ibafo, Ogun State, noting that the digital switchover would also positively impact the Nigerian film industry and contribute to the growth of the economy.

Policy Decisions on Digitization 

Guided by its arrowhead agency, the NBC, established by Section 1 of the National Broadcasting Commission Act, Cap. NII, Laws of the Federation, 2004 and vested with the responsibilities of regulating and controlling the nation’s broadcasting industry and ensuring the people’s right to quality broadcasting is assured, the federal government took the six policy decisions in the implementation of digital switchover:

They are that there will be a separation of functions in the Broadcast Industry; a Signal Distributor or Carrier will be responsible for the transmission of the signals to the viewers at home; three Signal Distributors or Carriers are to be licensed, one of which is one is to evolve from the transmission infrastructure of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA); the transmission standard shall be the DVB-T2 Format with MPEG-4 AVC Compression Format and that Set Top Boxes (STB) to enable existing analogue television receivers to continue receiving the digital transmission after the switchover date will be manufactured in Nigeria.

Why is President Buhari Fast-tracking Switchover?

Beyond being a UN international treaty, the political implications of Nigeria being the leader in the sub-region specifically and continent generally, the Digital Switchover (DSO) has huge financial, social, technological and cultural benefits to Nigeria as properly appreciated by the president. Sector experts have adduced eight significant reasons underlying the president’s interest here. These include: Today, all terrestrial television stations in Nigeria are operating on 450MHZ – 862MHZ: At digital switchover, all the TV stations, both old and new ones will operate under 450Mhz-694Mhz, leaving the whole of 700Mhz and 800Mhz Free.

These frequencies (700MHZ & 800MHZ) will be farmed back and sold by the FGN as part of the digital dividend and this worth over $4 billion revenue to federal government coffers. Already one of these frequencies has been sold for N32 billion.

By switching from analogue to digital transmission, the local government areas of Nigeria, through the software application of the new Set Top Box, will be able to electronically collect Television/Radio license fee from every TV-Household amounting to an estimated N120 billion annually, which have been difficult to collect. Since 2015 to-date state/local governments have lost more than N450 billion collectable internally generated revenue. This could be used to develop the LGAs that are in dire need of basic infrastructure.

The DSO will create over 50,000 direct jobs and another over 250,000 indirect jobs emanating from the new STB Local Manufacturers, over 200 new television stations and numerous local content production companies that will serve as feed-stock for these new 24-hour television channels. The positive Impact in the labour market, youth empowerment, creative industry and manufacturing sector can only be imagined.

The Nigerian advertising/media revenue will quadruple to about $6.7 billion as the new FREETV (Free To Air, FTA, Set Top Box Decoders) will provide audience measurement, making Nigeria reap from its huge population – beating South Africa, Kenya and Ghana who are topping the list now.

With Digital Switch Over, Nigerian viewers will have access to over 200 free to air channels on the FREETV Set To Box – ranging from News, movies, sports, lifestyle and general entertainment channels.

The new DSO FREETV Set Top Box will enhance Nollywood film and content monetization, by providing the platform for new movies and films to be released and distributed, hence fighting piracy. The industry is worth more than US$5.1 billion, making it the third most valuable film industry in the world, behind the United States and India.

With the DSO, the creative industry will experience a boom and the much-needed profit from creative works by content owners can be achieved. Eliminating piracy is the singular most important challenge to the creative industry in Nigeria. DSO is the solution.

The quality of life of Nigerian TV households will improve significantly with better TV viewing experience; better quality picture and clearer sound. There will be more cost saving options – receiving the same type of Pay TV channels on the new ‘FREETV’, free to air Set top box. All free of charge under the digital switch over.

Interactive TV experience – the new Digital FREETV Set Top Box decoder comes with value added services such as video on demand, VOD, PushVOD, OTT, E-Commerce, telemedicine, telebanking: The special interactive children education channels and government real-time information channel are added value for Nigerians.

The Challenge and Way Forward

From Verifiable checks, the digital switchover regime as envisaged by the federal government has indeed taken root in the country and what remains is for the proper harnessing of all available resources and the political will to give it a more enduring life. There is no better testimony to this when the Jos pilot and Abuja, Kaduna, Enugu, Ilorin and Oshogbo digital switch overs were launched.

These were powered by the licensed signal distributors with locally manufactured FREETV set top boxes by Gospell Digital Technology FZE and the other Nigerian licensed local set top box assembling plants all over Nigeria, transmitting over 25 free to air TV channels on the Freetv platform.

Having achieved this much, and bearing in mind the slow pace and confusion caused by the unfortunate removal of the former DG of NBC Emeka Mba and the EFCC imbroglio vis-a-vis the June 17th 2017 switch off cut-off date which is now passed and the realities on ground, the emerging consensus is that there is need for sober and in-depth review of situations in NBC to make meaningful and sustainable progress of the DSO.

DSO is a global trend that Nigeria must follow or be left behind and the benefits accruable is so huge that the government cannot afford to waste any more time. This informs the need to speedily complete the switchover process implementation for the benefit of all Nigerians.

  

To Sustain Buhari’s Momentum

A cross-section of critical stakeholders agreed that to sustain Buhari’s apparent resolve to forge ahead on the DSO front, about five measures should be deployed to aid quick completion by June 2021.

They are: The federal government should set up a DSO Implementation Presidential Task Force or reconstitute the Digi-team with a power to implement the Digital Switchover Programme in line with the White Paper and the team headed by a seasoned, knowledgable stake holder as administrator, with at least additional 10 members drawn from Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), Association of Cable Satellite Operators of Nigeria (ACON), Association of Licensed STB Manufactures of Nigeria (STBMAN), The Governors Forum, Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Customs, and Representatives from Ministry of Trade and Industry, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), APCON and NBC.

This will free the NBC from the challenge being experienced now, where NBC is the initiator, a player and also the regulator, hence, the seeming confusion. NBC’s roll should be that of an umpire and not a player. The approved white paper envisaged the implementation roll to the DIGI-TEAM and not NBC

The DSO’s new Presidential Implementation Task Force should immediately call for all stakeholders meeting to trash out some grey areas bothering broadcasters and come out with a firm road map and fixed Switch- On and Switch-Of time table in the shortest possible time, in order to mitigate the slippage of time and the attendant financial loss by investors and loss of confidence by the Public

The federal government should, as matter of urgency, release the N15 billion already approved for NBC and the balance of N32 billion (the cost of DSO implementation, according to the government white paper) to the reconstituted DSO Presidential implementation Task Force for proper accountability

The DSO should be given the required impetus as a national project and the Presidency should show leadership, with guidance from NBC as its impact will garner international good will and robust political leverage for the government and the people of Nigeria.

It no longer a secret that shadowy entrepreneurs working in tandem with some industry players are bent on truncating the digital switch over for whatever reason. These crops of mischief makers have continued in their effort to discredit the process and make Nigeria lose the benefit of the digital switch over and remain technologically backward.

Fortunately, with the mounting presidential interest and resolve – added to the fact that the DSO process was transparent and well thought through, despite the huge financial investment and time that have gone into it in the last 10 years, optimism of success is also mounting.

Threats

 

It’s clear that one of Nigeria’s endangered frontiers is the broadcast environment which now seems to be threatened by an armada of foreign programmes and foreign entities. It is becoming obvious that the Nigeria’s assertiveness in the digital switchover project is beginning to challenge the comfort of the expatriate lobby.

The emerging and critical consensus is that they should be told to get off and seek solace elsewhere. They must not be allowed to derail the imperative of berthing Nigeria’s digital switchover. The digital switchover is a huge project and contains even huger prospects for changing the national economy and creating employment.