Africa lags on digital migration

By Tom Jackson, South Africa

Africa will lag behind the rest of the world and risks having many of its states labelled as dysfunctional if too many countries miss the internationally-mandated June 2015 deadline for migration from analogue to digital broadcasting.

Only three African countries - Mauritius, Tanzania and Rwanda - have so far completed the digital migration process, and serious issues are hampering the migration in other nations.

Experts told BizTechAfrica there was a strong likelihood that many 50 African countries would miss the deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with the repercussions of missing the deadline to involve analogue interference and the loss of the benefits of digital broadcasting.

Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, said failure to comply with a globally mandated agreement “position a country as dysfunctional”, while there are further technical repercussions, such as digital signals in one country being affected by the analogue signals in a neighbouring one.

“Analogue interference is not a major issue for larger countries in Africa, but can be enormously damaging for small countries that are surrounded by territories with large, powerful broadcasters,” he said.

Russell Southwood, chief executive officer (CEO) of research firm Balancing Act, agreed with Goldstuck.

“There will be interference where there are transmission areas alongside each side of a border, which will tend to happen where there are towns or cities - for example Brazzaville and Kinshasa,” Southwood said.

Adam Thomas, research analyst at Ovum said countries would have to act in order to minimise the effect of analogue interference in the event some countries do not make the switchover by the deadline.

“The large size of Africa will limit the scope of the problem but it will still be an issue, particularly in border areas,” he said. “Namibia, for example, doesn't expect to meet the 2015 switchover date for the whole country, but says it will focus on switching over border areas first to ensure there are no interference issues with its neighbours.”

The experts were unanimous on the fact Africa would miss out on a great many benefits from digital broadcasting, which would be even more damaging than signal interference.

“The real issue is not the interference, but the loss of the massive benefits of broadcasting becoming digital,” Goldstuck said. “The efficiency and quality of digital broadcasting is enough justification to migrate. Ultimately, all TV viewers would benefit from both the quality and efficiency of digital, in that digital broadcasting will allow far more channels to be broadcast.”

Thomas said digital broadcasting would allow new players into the market to improve the quality and quantity of content.

“The existing analogue terrestrial network usually only has space to carry a few channels and these are taken up by a handful of local players, whose content may well leave a lot to be desired,” he said. “The new digital terrestrial networks have the capacity for many more channels so, in addition to the low quality channels in place now, there is the potential for much more choice, with new, better, channels becoming available in the market too.”

South Africa’s migration process is in chaos, with the government yet to decide on a policy for the long-delayed migration, and debates ongoing about whether the process is the responsibility of telecoms minister Siyabongwa Cwele or communications minister Faith Muthambi.

In Kenya, a new date for migration has yet to be set following a long legal battle, with the Supreme Court recently ruling that the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) and three local media houses consult and come up with a new switch-off date.

Nigerian telecommunications companies have expressed concern about the uncertainties surrounding the process in the country, which faces a lack of funds, unrealistic timelines and low awareness amongst the population.

Against all evidence, other countries - such as Zambia - have insisted their migration processes are on track, while Uganda’s digital migration is set to finally commence this month with the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) setting a December deadline for digitisation.

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