By Armstrong Idachaba
It is no longer news that the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission, (NBC) is in troubled waters, facing myriads of challenges over moving from analogue to digital broadcasting in Nigeria. This country is now years behind others. In this encounter with Stanley Nkwazema, the Acting Director General of the Commission, Dr. Armstrong Idachaba explains the problems and the way forward
Why is Nigeria still behind in transiting from analogue to digital broadcasting, several years after the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) issued guidelines on the migration?
There is no problem that is not surmountable. We give God the glory. First of all, don’t forget I have been at the NBC for decades now. I have served in various capacities; I have been Zonal Director in at least four to five locations. I have been at the core of the monitoring of operations, as Director of Monitoring. I have worked directly as Director in the DG’s office of three to four Director Generals. I basically have knowledge about the activities of the commission and I think that has been very helpful. The broadcast industry is dynamic, constantly faced by challenges and, over time, I have seen challenges of different shades that face the regulators, some of them imposed by technology, politics and changes in human behaviour that are not peculiar to Nigeria. These are exactly the situations we have here except that we have some issues that are in the front burner. It is imperative that those front burner issues are addressed for the overall objective of development of broadcasting in Nigeria
The civil suits instituted against the NBC by some institutions, some vendors, service providers and by the ICPC against the suspended DG really weighed down the activities of the NBC. How are you going to wriggle out of it?
I think strongly that there is imperative for consensus building going forward. Where people are in court, cases are instituted, it actually puts a clog in the wheel of progress and I think that those things arise due to some level of mistrust. What we are currently doing is bringing everybody back to the table. We want to be a bit more transparent and to say ‘look these are where the issues are’. There is an overriding national interest in all that we do and we expect operators and regulators to have that understanding. We are talking to all parties, interestingly the attitude is that people are now willing to discuss and forge ahead and that is a very good signal.
How can you forge ahead with Association of Cable Operators (ACON) on one side, Multichoice, Pinnacle, ITS and several others, on the other side?
Only last week, I had a meeting between Pinnacle Communication and ITS. Fortunately, the two companies had a pre-meeting before they met the regulator and the meetings were very open and sincere. I got re-assured from the meeting that both signal distributors are willing to work together for the good of the country. There are lots of constraints, including the fact that government needs to pay for some services and government is committed to paying them. They are willing to further constrain themselves and invest so that the digital ecology can open up one more time.
There was also the issue between Multichoice and some local/indigenous operators of the cable television such that parties were in court. Again, I was able to get them together and prevailed on them in an open sincere discussion. As we speak, both parties have agreed to withdraw cases in court as a way of paving the way for a peaceful broadcast industry going forward.
We have wasted two years on Digital Switch Over. Are we now looking forward to having a date to switch on more states?
Again, credit must be given to the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who has shown uncommon patriotism in delivering the Digital Switch Over project on behalf of the Federal Government and Nigerians. Fortunately, the Federal Government is pursuing the reform of the broadcast industry and I think that these two are actually converging at the right time as a central focus that will change the history of broadcasting in Nigeria. The Minister has requested engagements at all the levels of the ecology and that is happening. In the next two weeks, I and the chairman of DIGITEAM Engineer, Eddy Amana, are likely to report back to the Honourable Minister on activities we have instituted and measures we have taken to re-energise the process.
We are very hopeful that once we have met with the Minister, we should be able to talk to Nigerians and the broadcast industry generally regarding the immediate future of the rollout which we want to believe is becoming very positive.
When you say immediate future of the rollout, are you looking at any area specifically?
First of all, we need to release a timeline. We need to begin to broadcast digital signals in certain main cities and territories in Nigeria outside the current six, Plateau, FCT, Enugu, Ilorin, Osun and Kaduna that we have been operating from for almost three years. We hope that in the immediate foreseeable future, we will be able to increase coverage by almost 70%. I believe that is going to happen very soon and it is possible with the cooperation of every individual and corporate entity in the ecosystem of DSO. It is true that we have lost some years in the process but I think we are going to come out stronger and better this time around.
What about switching off analogue signals in areas already being transmitted digitally by the team to ensure seriousness?
We also are planning that as we are beginning to light up the Digital Signal in many cities, we will also come up with a plan to begin to switch off analogue in certain cities, especially cities where we have been transmitting for the past two and a half years. Of course, we need to cover those cities completely and the signal distributors fortunately are committed to doing that within the shortest possible time. Once they cover those cities, we will begin the switch off as it were running alongside the switch on in other cities. Don’t forget that they will need stop-gap transmitters for total coverage of those areas already switched on before we can switch off?
Have you been able to discuss with the Set Top Box Manufacturers (STB-Man)?
One of the areas we have actually been beating our chest and thumping ourselves is in the area of Set Top Box Manufacturing. Don’t forget we licensed 13 manufacturers. At the early stage following the vigour that was put into the process by Alhaji Lai Mohammed between 2015 and 2016, we were able to get like six of those plants up and running.
There is Gospell Digitall in Calabar, and SMK also in Calabar. There is Trefonics here in Abuja, Digitune in Lagos and a few others. I have spoken with the Chairman of the Set Top Box Manufacturers, Sir Godfrey Ohuabunwa, and he confidently told me they have installation capacity to meet the nation’s requirement at very short notice. In fact, he said that as we speak there is a reserve of close to a million set top boxes waiting for deployment. So, it’s interesting to note that they can achieve that. I think all they need is a date for the roll out and they will supply the boxes. The DSO cannot operate outside the Set Top Box manufacturers, the signal distributors and the satellite providers. We need each other to function effectively.
You have been an insider in NBC, the morale of the staff went down seriously; promotions, training, travel remunerations and other entitlements have been delayed for close to four years. What do you think will be the best way to get this place running smoothly?
What I met, actually being around, I knew some of the issues. It was a highly divided work staff. I grew up in the NBC. I came into the NBC in 1995 and I met a rather united, closely-knit regulatory agency. Unfortunately over the years, that ebbed and it came to an era that was characterised by suspicion, ethnic divide and some kind of petty, clannish loyalties. I don’t think that is good for a national institution. We are trying to rebuild that national spirit, love and unity amongst staff. We cannot solve all their welfare needs but we are fortunate that following the Presidential intervention in NBC and the reform of the commission, the President approved some new welfare packages for the commission which we are working with its board to put in place. I think that all of that considered, once we begin to implement, staff will generally be happy. We have tried within this short time to do some outstanding trainings that the staff ought to have attended but couldn’t, for one reason or another. We have done their promotional interviews which were outstanding and I think there is a faint degree of enthusiasm which I think is good.
Let us talk specifically about these
How are you handling foreign companies that are providing services SES that have threatened to go to court and Arion technologies and several others that provide some form of services?
I think we should commend SES for their partnership with the commission. I have followed SES closely; I remember when they came and signed an agreement with us to give us satellite services which is very key to the transmission of the digital signal. Of course, we are indebted to SES, we have not paid them for a very long time. It is positively strange that unlike what they will do in other countries, they automatically switch off; they have kept faith with the Nigerian government. The moment I came on board, I actually engaged them because I met their problem on ground. I spoke with them and I tried to assure them, having spoken with the Information Minister that we are committed to paying the debt. The Minister on his own is trying to get the consent of Mr. President to get the funds released to them. Meanwhile, there is good news again, they have said that because of their belief in the current administration of President Buhari and the trust they have in the government, they are willing to hold on. They will not cut the services, trusting that they believe the project is one that is to the good advantage of all Nigerians.
You are also offering a service that is very essential, what are you doing about this coronavirus pandemic and regulatory roles in the media?
We have actually sent communication to all the broadcast stations that they should recognise that their services are essential to the measures that usually happen at times of national emergencies. Theirs is basically responsible patriotic national coverage.
So, we have made it incumbent on all the broadcast stations that they must be objective; they must provide relevant developmental information; one that will keep people abreast in issues and help in alleviating the suffering and pains of Nigerians.
We have also made them to realise that, at all times, they owe Nigerians the duty to keep them informed, so they must put in place measures that will ensure that even at times of lockdown that the stations are able to inform, educate, enlighten and, to some extent, entertain Nigerians. Information is key, but we should not abuse it. Broadcast stations and other forms must at all times remember that if they are not objective and continue to release fake figure and lies, they are causing panic and heartache to Nigerians. We don’t need that now. They must confirm and crosscheck properly before going to press. We need objective reporting, certainly not fake news, because it does nobody any good.