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How to achieve Nigeria’s digitisation

By Emmanuel Onwubiko
11 December 2017   |   3:38 am
The best way to start this piece on this thorny issue is to narrate what a successful digital switch over of broadcasting did to the local television industry...

The best way to start this piece on this thorny issue is to narrate what a successful digital switch over of broadcasting did to the local television industry in one of the African nations that has successfully become a global brand in terms of political stability, industrialisation, good governance and tourism.

This country is Rwanda where the charismatic politician Mr. Paul Kegame has presided over the political affairs of that African nation with unprecedented success for a considerable amount of time.

In our effort to make the best out of the already worst case scenario in the nearly unending trajectory of digital switchover in Nigeria, this writer decided to understudy the very few success stories in Africa namely Rwanda and Tanzania. We will look at South Africa, too.

Nigeria having missed the initial date in 2012, government was forced to shift migration date to June 17, 2015. Although the NBC was ready to conclude the migration in 2015, but it was faced with cash constraints, as the Federal Government did not release the necessary funds for the migration.

A reflection on the success story of Rwanda is done so as to recommend to Nigeria to adopt the same modality and stop further muddying up of a scientific process that must not be thrown into the cesspool of corruption or used for political pugilism.

Ben Gasore, a journalist wrote that Rwanda was the second country in sub-Saharan Africa to migrate from analogue television transmission to digital broadcasting by June of 2014.

This was in 2014 about the same time that the Nigerian government was busy setting up a committee which eventually wrote a national Whitepaper.

Specifically, the whitepaper was released in 2012, the PAC submitted its report in 2008. But the implementation is fraught and characterised by needless and meaningless bureaucratic bottlenecks meant to put public money in the pockets of corrupt and bribe seeking officials.

But in Rwanda, during the four-phase exercise, over 51,000 television sets were switched off across the country by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (Rura).

Prior to digital migration, Rwanda had for decades only had one free-to-air television station, Rwanda Television. Those who could afford opted for pay TV Tele10, which aired foreign programmes.

Later in 2007, the pay TV market monopoly by Tele10 was broken by Star Africa Media (popularly known as StarTimes).
In 2008, the government announced plans to digitalize the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA) network following the June 17, 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union for analogue TV switch-over.

Rura then licensed Tele10, Star Africa Media, TransAfrica and Sorim to import top boxes (decoders) to facilitate the switch-over. At the time of this referenced article in 2014, 50 per cent of the TV sets in the country were for analogue transmission.

According to Rura statistics, in 2014 there were over 192,000 users who have acquired decoders and digital coverage is now at 95 per cent. Decoders cost between Rwf23,500 and Rwf32,000, depending on the vendor.

The switch to digital broadcasting has boosted the industry, with a number of local TV stations setting up shop. Rwanda now has seven TV stations. They are Family TV, TV One, TV10, CNBC Africa, Lemigo TV, Contact TV, Yego TV and Rwanda Television.

The writer stated that there are several opportunities digital TV presents but industry players are yet to tap the benefits fully.

Digital broadcasting he affirmed offers more freed-up frequency spectra, thus making it easier for more entrepreneurs to start TV stations. This presents creative Rwandans opportunities to produce cheaper local content that suits viewers’ preferences. If we get it right in Nigeria, the benefits will be tremendous. TV proprietors will have to come up with new marketing strategies to attract adverts.

Market analysts say it is up to the media houses to convince companies and government institutions to advertise with them.

If there is a public policy in Nigeria that its implementation is shrouded in unnecessary confusion especially in the last five years, it is the policy on the digitisation of broadcasting in Nigeria from analogue to digital.

The Nigerian Broadcasting Commission seems complicit in the lack of progress in achieving full digital switch over of broadcasting in Nigeria.

According to the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), digital Switch Over (DSO) is the name given to the process of changing from analogue to digital TV broadcasting.

Digital broadcast according to experts, means that consumers can enjoy a wider variety of shows on multiple channels with a better quality of broadcast.

It also facilitates reduced power and energy consumption, and spectrum efficiency which brings a host of associated benefits for consumers and broadcasters. For instance, in Abuja, TV viewers will be able to enjoy 30 channels unlike the limited number of channels offered by analogue TV.

A fundamental disadvantage of analogue broadcasting is that it has a restricted choice of programming due to limited space for channels; having to tune the TV to your region to ensure that you could pick up broadcasts; having to play with the antennae to get a smooth, uninterrupted signal. But digital TV has changed all that.

Digital broadcast transmissions involve many players in the chain-content producers, chain programmers, point-to-point links (such as between the studio and the transmitter station), manufacturers and end users.

Recall that ITU (international Telecommunications Union) gave Nigeria up to June, 2017 to switch from analogue broadcasting to Digital to free up some spectrum for telecoms use. Television owners generally will be expected as of necessity to get set top boxes to receive digital signals.

This is a box-shaped device known as set-top box (STB) that converts a digital television signal to analogue for viewing on a conventional set, or that enables cable or satellite television to be viewed is a critical component of the entire mechanisms of digitisation.

The government subsidised set top boxes according to the NBC are being sold across markets and shops at N1,500. But TV viewers will pay N1000 annually for TV license fee, which would be put inside a fund for the use of the industry and Nigerians. Also, those with low signals in their areas will need external antennas that will give them clear signals. These are still illusions in a lot of homes.

Sadly, this switch over process which should not be muddied up in the murky waters of politics has suffered the notorious fate of being subjected to all sorts of organised policy summersault, all in a bid to use the transition process in the broadcast industry to enrich some persons who have friends in government.

Since the year 2012, Nigeria which is obviously the largest black nation in the World has failed to effectively achieve this transition due to poor policy implementation.

The apparent failure on two occasions to meet up with the target of this digital switch over has therefore left this writer wondering whether we are cursed not to always follow the best global practices and follow better examples from technologically advanced nations such as the West and China but do often allow bureaucratic bottlenecks to unduly frustrate the realisation of good programmes and public policies.

Writing in the book “Public Policy: formulation, implementation and evaluation,” R.K. Sapru has considered officials of government to be decisive and resolute in picking and choosing the best of policies to be implemented.

The writer stated thus: “Policy Inputs are the demands made on the political systems by individuals and groups for action or inaction about some perceived problems. Such demands may include a general insistence that government should do something to a proposal for specific action on the matter. For example, prior to the passing of the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act of 1987, some organisations voiced a general desire for enactment of law on the ‘sati-pratha’ issue.”

“In other words, policy outputs are the actual decisions of the implementers. They are what a government does, as distinguished from what it says it is going to do. Examples of policy outputs relate to such matters as the education institutions built, taxes collected, compensation paid, or curbs on trade eliminated. Outcomes are real results whether intended or unintended.”

There are various reasons why a holistic switch over has been impossible, for example, Since the ITU declaration in Geneva 2006 on DSO, Nigeria and several African countries have been faced with infrastructure and funding challenges in meeting their obligations on DSO.

It is apparent that pushing the responsibility of completing the DSO migration to their various ministries, amidst lack of adequate funding on the part of government, poor broadcasting infrastructure among others have stalled this process.

The journey towards the preparation for digital switchover really started in Nigeria over a decade ago, in May 2006, after Nigeria signed international and regional agreement to conclude digital migration by June 17, 2012.

In a bid to achieve the 2012 migration date, the federal government, in 2007, approved the process of migration, and in 2008, inaugurated a Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on transition from analogue to digital broadcasting.

The committee was given the responsibility to come up with a policy, framework and a broadcasting model for the process, and in 2009, the committee submitted its report with several recommendations.

Government, however, kept the recommendations for three years and did not release the white paper for digital migration, a situation that caused Nigeria to miss out on the June 17, 2012, initial date for migration.

Among the ways to effectively complete the migration process, a keen look must be taken at the model adopted by other countries such as South Africa, Rwanda and Tanzania.

For example, StarTimes, a privately held Chinese broadcasting company as observed from the piece by the Rwandan journalist, has played a part in the drive towards digital switch over in East Africa.

South Africa is, like the rest of Africa, located in ITU Region 1 and therefore subject to the removal of protection for its analogue television frequencies in June 2015.

Chris Armstrong and Richard Collins observed that South Africa has formally taken on this challenge, devoting considerable resources and policymaking effort to implementing a transition from analogue to digital television – with, however, little constructive effect.

The duo stated that both Mauritius and Namibia have adopted the DVB-T standard – the same standard which South Africa and other Region 1 countries formally adopted at the ITU RRC-6 meeting.

South Africa, they said has set successive ambitious targets for digital switchover of television (i.e., migration of its terrestrial TV signals from analogue to digital).

In early 2007, the South African Cabinet approved a digital switch-on date of 1 November 2008 and analogue switch-off on 1 November 2011 – thus calling for a rapid three years migration period (RSA, 2007).

This migration timetable was reaffirmed in the draft Department of Communications (DoC) strategy and implementation plan documents released in March 2007 (DoC, 2007a, 2007b); re-emphasized in then-Communications Minister Dr. Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri’s Budget Vote Speech in May 2007 (Matsepe-Casaburri, 2007), and integrated into the DoC’s official Digital Migration Policy of August 2008, latterly, however, the DoC has acknowledged that the switchover target date may need to be reviewed (Ensor, 2010; McLeod, 2010c), and the regulator ICASA has ruled that analogue switch-off can only be in 2013 at the earliest. By 2015, South Africa still hasn’t achieved digital switchover because of disagreements amongst broadcasters.

If the Government of Nigeria were to adopt this model, to allow already existing infrastructure be upgraded and developed by players in the broadcasting industry using the StarTimes model, perhaps a full migration would have been achieved.

The model this writer is canvassing is to allow all carriers like Startimes or GOTV carry free television signals in their areas of coverage on behalf of government. This way, subscribers won’t be saddled with new STBs that the government can’t afford and we can achieve DSO faster but government should look for a way to protect all players, like STB manufacturers, signal distributors.

Onwubiko is head of Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA).