AMSTRONG IDACHABA : Digital Transition Catalyst for Nigerian Content

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Business Interview

The Acting Director-General National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Prof. Armstrong Aduku Idachaba, assesses the accelerated activities towards the delivery of transition of broadcasting from analogue to digital platform and how the process will unleash the creativity of Nigerian content producers. He speaks with Olawale Ajimotokan

Can you give us an overview of what the Digital Switch Over (DSO) process is all about and what does Nigeria tend to benefit from the project?

I think the DSO is becoming a repeated phenomenon. In simple term, DSO-acronym for Digital Switch Over-basically is the transition of broadcasting from an analogue era to a digital era. The whole idea of broadcasting from analogue to digital is brought about by an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) decision in 2006 that there is an increasing need for use of spectrum. And technology from the research indicated that there will be better and more spectrum availability if broadcasters move from the analogue mode of transmission to digital.

Added to that was increasing evidence that the new digital technology away from analogue enhances picture and sound quality and comes with many other gains that are far above the limitations of analogue technology. The world now set a date for broadcasters to move from analogue technology to digital broadcast technology.

In Nigeria, we have more or less missed those dates twice, in 2012 and 2020. But that is not to say that as a country, we are not making efforts. We are making giant strides towards actualising that global mandate of transiting broadcasting from analogue to digital platform.

There is a belief that we missed the deadlines basically because of poor conception, mismanagement, corruption and bad leadership. How would you react to this?

These are misconceptions because transiting from analogue to digital broadcasting all over the world is not a tea party. It is a very demanding, very tasking and multidimensional endeavor that every country has had to face with the best of its strength, financial and technical and other abilities.

It may interest you to know that no country has set a date and actualised it in a way. In the UK they had to revise their entire transition strategy after they had pumped in millions of Pound Sterling. Also in the United States, they had to reset the date over and over before they eventually transited. This is for very obvious reasons.

There are social implications for transition, for instance, if a country must transit from analogue to digital broadcasting, you will bother about the people if they will be able to afford digital technology. When they transit what happens to their existing radio and television sets as well as analogue infrastructure that the individuals or countries have invested in, over time. The question of affordability, accessibility is also primary to the transition process.

There are also political, cultural considerations, the constraint of publicity and awareness creation. It is a multifaceted endeavor and for that reason, as I said, countries must aggregate their best to meet up with the transition.

In Nigeria, we missed those dates not essentially because we did not make the move. Even as we speak, Nigeria is not among the countries that have not kick-started. There are several countries that have not started at all in Africa. The two or three countries that have transited in Africa, in all fairness are like mini-states compared to Nigeria in population and landscape. As we speak South Africa is yet to transit even when everybody believes that country is perhaps the most advanced in Africa. We have taken good steps, we are in six states as we speak and we have done what is critical to the process in terms of delivery of platforms, we have two signal distributors operating side by side in the six states and FCT. We have set up companies that are engaged in the production of Set-Top Boxes, that is the decoders, which are very critical to the transition.

All the basic elements for a comprehensive transition we have and we have already set out the template which will be replicated across the country. Judging from all experiences and interventions that come from the Ministry of Information, what we have been lacking in Nigeria since the whole motion of transition began was the lack of political will to drive the process.

Fortunately, in 2015, when the current minister came, he muzzled the political will and got the pilot scheme running in Plateau which was launched in June 2016. From there we followed up from Kaduna to Kwara, Enugu and Osun and we are ready to roll out in many other states. Political will is critical and also finance. Of course because as we are beginning to see that the demands for government expenditure are increasingly becoming very high as there are competing priorities. We are hoping as we are beginning to see when the federal government committed up to N9.4 billion for the payments of contracts that are associated with the DSO transition. Our hope is that with this development, there will be accelerated activities regarding the delivery of the entire DSO project.

Is the fund released by government enough?

We have done a retrospective analysis of what we have done over time and identified the areas of gaps and I think we are confident now that we will move faster to the new locations we are going to. We have also taken the critical decision go to the big cities.

We deliberately chose Jos for the pilot scheme for its several levels of significance. It is a little city with a beautiful landscape with a historical resume of artistic creation, like first Nigeria’s first coloured TV was set up in Jos. Also, a lot of top-notch creative programmes and a lot of creative young musical personae are either born in Jos, or brought up in Jos, or are of Plateau origin coupled with the sizable population of the city. And the experience in Jos is very rewarding. This is the same in other places the platform has rolled out. The pictures are good with qualitative contents and there is fulfillment from the people that are beneficiaries.

What do you intend to do differently?

What to do differently is to build on what we have done before. For instance, we have noticed where we are operating with regards to contents, that there are certain classes of contents that are not currently on the platform. There are no kid channels and you know the kid population is a critical population for TV viewership. Similarly, Sports is not quite reflected within the bouquet and we know that Nigerians are always eager for sports. We are deliberately going to create channels that will galvanise more of that interest in terms of engaging kids and sports programmes.

We also want to collaborate going further with certain content producers within the ecology like the motion picture producers, Nollywood, and several other groups that we are talking to. We want to deliberately and strategically get the creative people to own channels not just business people, but those who are in the creative enterprise so that they can get visibility, they can also get opportunity to commodify and commercialise some of their artistic creations. We also want to increase the visibility of electronic programmes guide options so that there will be more information, data and more reports from government agencies across the platforms.

There is a proposition on the STB system that we have adopted that allows an interface with the internet. It is already in the STB but we have not really propagated it and as we move forward it is also the time to engage the telecommunication companies so that anytime we roll out, we are able to extend the digital transmission in terms of broadcasting but we also be advancing the call for maximum increase in access to telecoms which is also important for national development.

The problem now is not about the approval but rather about the release. Where do you think we will be in the next 40 years?

We have decided to go into the big cities and we are going to Lagos shortly. Before the third quarter of this year, we would have covered at least five more states and by the plans we have, by the middle of 2022, we would have completed the digital switchover in Nigeria, God willing.

There is a big ambition to roll out nationally and the good news is that all the component players within the ecology are ready to go. The signal distributors have assured they are ready and as we speak, they are setting up their infrastructure in Lagos, Port-Harcourt and Kano preparatory to the roll-out. The box manufacturers are putting their act together to ensure the availability of boxes needed per city.

We give credit to the Honorable Minister of Information with regards to his vision of the implementation of the process. The Task Force he set up also has, as part of the members, a representative of the Minister of Finance and I must put on record the huge support we have enjoyed from the minister of finance in recent time in trying to push through the idea of raising for the next phase of the roll-out

If I get the body language well, I think there are obvious signs that money will be released on time and I don’t think the usual bottlenecks that people think can slow down some of these processes will happen this time.

Is the fund approved all that is required for the transition?

The N9.4 billion is not all we need for the transition. The N9.4 billion is money that has just been given for contractual engagements in settling people that are supposed to deliver certain services. There is a company that is handling satellite services and we have been owing them some money and they are going to get the chunk of the money.

There is a period called dual-illumination when you set side by side analogue contents and the digital contents. In the six cities where we are now, we have dual illumination because there are people with the STB which are watching digital contents while those without the boxes still have access to content in the analogue.

The question was that for people who are carrying digital signals for the time we have dual illumination, who pays because you will not subject the broadcasters to double taxation by servicing the digital transmission and at the same time the analogue transmission.

The government, therefore, said that anywhere you are on the digital platform, the government bears the cost and in the process, we got indebted to the signal distributors who are sending the signals, we got indebted to those who are providing satellite services and the software managers. And it is all of these debts or obligations that amounted to N9.4 billion.

Certainly, the fund approved is not enough to drive the process. But the question is, what kind of DSO do we want to deliver in Nigeria? The government has taken the decision that going forward, it will not be contributing its lean resources to fund the DSO. They expect the players and investors in the sector must be able to drive their own obligation, financially. We hope that the broadcasters, those who own the channels will now pay the people who are carrying their signals while signal distributors will evolve a way to pay those providing satellite services. Government will be absolved of any financial obligations.

However, that is not to say the NBC as a driver of the process will not have any responsibility. The NBC will have to find means to take out of its meagre resources to fund some of the elements of the transition especially with details of logistics and meetings and other things that will be necessary for the process. But, largely we want the process to be self-sustaining.

Another question is about the economic strength and affordability of the 24 million television households. When the process started the enthusiasm centred on it being free because it was subsidised. Now that subsidy is off how do you intend to woo consumers back to the process?

Do you have a strategy to incentivise them?

That is a critical and sensitive point at the core of the digital transition, especially from DTT. Don’t mix the component at the moment there is PayTv in DTT in Nigeria, those that collect subscription from subscribers like DSTv, Gotv, and Startimes. What government intends to do is to get this same digital content quality available to the ordinary Nigerians, hence the DTT proposition that we are pushing.

The point about accessibility to this by those in the low social equilibrium is very vital because government has the obligation to get information available to all segments of the citizenry whether high or low.

Now does the ordinary man have the economic empowerment to be able to afford an STB which is the major device to access digital television, that is the question? So government deliberately has set up two middleware companies because the box is driven by the middleware software that is embedded in it. We hope that by this competition the charges for the boxes will get low.

It is also contemplated by the white paper that Digiteam with the supervision of the NBC will look at the pricing because we are giving this box manufacturing business to Nigerian entrepreneurs who might want to maximize profit but the government has to consciously watch how they fix those prices in order to remain affordable. All over the world, government must find a way to support the low-income earners who do not have the capacity to acquire those boxes.

That is what we did at the pilot stage when we incentivized the proposition by making the boxes very low and affordable. Now that there is no fund to subsidize, we can get affordability through several ways. The box manufacturers said they can engage the people on their own, the state government, the civil service structure and arrange a financing plan where people just take the boxes and pay over time with a little fragment of payment, they will defray the cost.

How will the DSO be a catalyst for Nigerian content and Nigerian producers instead of consuming foreign content all the time?

It is going to create a boost for the local content industry because there will be availability of channels unlike the analogue era that you have few channels available to people. There will be a pluralism of channels and a lot of diversification.

The digital technology has the capability to carry over 60 channels and in populating these channels with content, young people with creative ideas will have the avenue to put their contents together and give it expression. They will also be able to commodify it to make some profits.

In Nigeria we have a huge population of young creative minds and a pool of people who are looking for opportunities to unleash their potentials. The DSO will provide this platform.

As part of the direct strategy of the DSO, there is what we called the Content Development Fund. Government in its wisdom has created this with the idea that whoever is going to have access to the digital platform, will pay a little token between N500 to N1,000 as digital access fee, it is not subscription and it is one-off. The digital access money paid will be conserved in an account and government will appoint some credible trusty to manage the fund and what the money will be used for is to commission young entrepreneurial, creative Nigerians to produce Nigerian content.

We are going to get them to commission production involved in innovative future thinking on developing Nigerian content to create the potential for country’s creative industry.
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