Malawi digital migration ‘premature’

By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi

Malawi rushed in switching on its digital broadcasting network to mark its digital migration process as there are still many grey areas that has led to switching it off, barely a week after it was switched on.

Government however, still insists that the process is on track although stakeholders in the industry say government prematurely switching on as it did not fulfil some of the most important requirements before this action.

The migration to Digital Television broadcasting is an initiative that was arrived at the Regional Radio Conference of 2006 in Geneva, Switzerland (RRC-06) which requires countries including Malawi to migrate from analogue to digital terrestrial TV broadcasting technologies by 15th June 2015. The SADC region set December 31, 2013 as the date to achieve the switch.

Government has since registered a company called the Malawi Digital Broadcasting Network Company which will be managing the digital television network by hosting a horde of television broadcasters.

One of the officials in a broadcasting company that is supposed to be hosted by the government company established to carry out the digital terrestrial signal relay says there was supposed to be high levels of consumer awareness.

“The government was also supposed to avail affordable set-top-boxes (STB),” he says.

In order for viewers to access digital television signals on an ordinary analogue television set, they require this STB as it converts the digital terrestrial television (DTT) signal for reception on an ordinary analogue television set.

The official opting for anonymity also said government needed to identify broadcasters first before rushing to embarrass the Vice President Khumbo Kachali who presided over the switching on ceremony in Lilongwe on December 31 2013, which was the set deadline for migration.

Government switched off the digital broadcasting network on January 6 due to what it called lack of submission of operational signals by television broadcasters.

At the time of the switch on, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Civic Education Luckie Sikwese said there were only two submissions from Luso Television and Malawi Broadcasting Corporation.

In an interview on Thursday he said now Times Television and Timveni have made their submissions out of 20 stations expected to do so.

Sikwese insisted that the switching on and off of the Digital Broadcasting Network was never rushed but was within the project set targets and timelines.

“In any project of such magnitude there are technical factors that emerge even when one is to sign off. Factors including reposition of transmitters at Mpingwe and Lilongwe; and the need for dedicated power lines and accessories were critical to the transition centres played a critical role in the decision to switch off,” said Sikwese.

He added that the good news is that all these elements are being taken care of and the network will be on.

In most of the countries like South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania which already migrated to digital from analogue, governments either heavily subsidized STBs or publicly-borne costs were the STB tax exemptions and the funded public awareness campaign.

Study carried out so far shows that countries like Tanzania where the switch was done in December 2012, it is clear that the switch is primarily an exercise in changing consumer behaviour, rather than being a purely technical, regulatory or policy making exercise.

On the sentiments that the switching on has been rushed Sikwese said the Malawi Digital Network like any other project has timelines and milestones.

“One of the milestones was completion of installing the network and in line with the SADC timelines switch on the network by 31st December 2013,” said Sikwese.

The PS said digital migration is a process and not one off thing and insisted that the International Telecommunications Union official analogue switch off is 17th June 2015 indicating that Malawi has still a lot of time. 

Sikwese said the Public awareness on digital migration is an ongoing process and in keeping with the requirements of sustained consumer awareness the Government of Malawi through the Ministry of Information developed two key documents.

“These documents are the Malawi Digital Broadcasting Policy and the Digital Broadcasting Communication Strategy. Both documents were publicly launched at two separate functions presided over by the Vice President of Malawi and the Minister of Information respectively in December 2013,” he said.

He said the relevant awareness campaign materials including stickers, posters radio and television programmes have been developed and have been distributed and aired. What may be a challenge is the intensity of the awareness. 

Sikwese explained that the Malawi’s model on the implementation of the Digital Broadcasting Network including the acquisition and distribution of set top boxes is unique.

On whether or not government will subsidise STBs, Sikwese argued that the pricing of STBs is situational.

“...In Malawi the pricing framework takes into account various factors including technical specifications i.e. top –range STBS with technical specifications that include “conditional access” to certain channels if need be to introduce pay services by broadcasters at later date; and low range STBs that are highly affordable by most Malawians. Such a blend is offers users a wider choice depending on their purchasing power,” he explained.

Sikwese also said the switching on and off of the network is not dependent on the STB cost subsidisation as inferred by Malawi News inquiry.

Stakeholders also doubted the government switch on saying it never erected terrestrial towers to facilitate signal transmission and were pleading with Multichoice Malawi’s GOtv firm to use their facility, but Sikwese insisted that government never failed to erect towers.

“It was not in the project design to erect towers but to co-site the transmitters,” said Sikwese.

He explained that the Digital Broadcasting Transmitters are co-sited on Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL) Towers in Lilongwe (Area 3), Blantyre (Mpingwe, Ndirande), Mzuzu and Zomba.

“Government has not and will not at any point ask use of GOtv Infrastructure. You may wish to confirm with MTL on the issue,” he said.

“You may wish to note that Government has registered a company, the Malawi Digital Broadcasting Network Company that will be managing this network, not a privately owned network.”

Broadcasters have also complained that they have been ambushed with requirement that they are supposed to be paying US$1,500 a month for being hosted by the government company to which Sikwese responded:

“I am not aware of such a position of ambushing. The concerned broadcasters will be in a better position to clarify and therefore I have no further comments on the matter.”

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