Digital television – SADC member states’ trials and tribulations

Magreth Nunuhe

Windhoek – Many SADC countries that have not yet migrated to digital terrestrial television (DTT) have promised to switch over by 2018, although still faced with a lot of challenges ranging from a lack of finance, shortage of expert human resources and lack of attractive local content. The SADC countries made these revelations during the SADC-SABA Broadcasting Forum held in Windhoek, Namibia on 25-26 September 2017.

Others challenges mentioned were limited manufacturing or assembling capacity of Set Top Boxes (STBs), economic challenges, unfavourable terrain requiring gap fillers in many areas and inconsistent disbursements of funds for DTT migration. Botswana, for instance, said that there was a lack of local content, but an amount of US$2.5 million has been earmarked to assist local producers in creating programmes for sports and documentaries for the 2017/18 financial year.

The country mourned about the disadvantaged groups’ inability to afford the STBs, delays in the release of the digital dividend, and the continued use of the analogue TV frequencies, especially by neighbouring countries, which could delay the release of the valuable DTT spectrum. Currently, there are 500 000 households that run on analogue transmitters in Botswana, while most consumers in the urban areas receive DTT on satellite.

There are 45 analogue transmitters sites and 45 digital transmitters. A joint task force has been set up to come up with measures to overcome the challenges on the availability of STBs and the initial considerations for migration is now set for January 2018. Malawi, which is among the only four SADC Member States, including Namibia, Tanzania and Mauritius, to successfully migrate from analogue to digital before the deadline for the migration due date of 17 June 2015, also expressed its challenges to fully digitalise.

According to Zadziko Mankhambo, Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority’s (MACRA) digital broadcasting manager, some of the challenges they experience are inadequate local content on all channels, low uptake of STBs due to economic challenges, unfavourable terrain requiring gap fillers in most areas, slow growth of the network in other areas and poor operating standards by some content service providers (CSPs).

Other challenges include delayed rollout affecting implementation of final Apps Store Optimisation (ASO) for the country, a capital intensive process, resulting in slow progress in all areas. “SABA should find ways of enhancing local content production in the region. There should be ways of stopping developed countries from dumping analogue equipment to developing countries,” stressed Mankhambo.

To date, there are twenty CSPs on the Malawi Digital Network and the DVBT2 signal is also accessed by Go-TV decoders, which makes it possible to be accessed by over 400,000 viewers. Malawi Digital has sold over 35,000 decoders but the country is yet to embark on the final stage of ASO in the southern and central regions, while the national ASO process is expected to be finalized in 2018.

Swaziland was able to successfully switch off analogue transmitters on the 31 December 2016 following a successful migration process. The country is now working on the licensing process for Digital Dividend 1 and 2 spectrum to telecommunications service providers for broadband applications and the process is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

Challenges for Swaziland include the low uptake of STBs attributed to perceived high prices of the boxes and the lack of attractive content on the DTT platform. The Swazi government has, however, subsidised the price of STBs to citizens. Other challenges include limited content (local content) to fill up the channels that have been made available by the DTT project. Among SADC Member States, Namibia was the frontrunner in terms of digitalisation and offered 70 percent of its population a digital TV signal before the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) deadline of June 2015.

Elizabeth Ujarura Kamutuezu of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) said that the country was, however, still faced with some challenges, among them availability of STBs and local content. With a network coverage of 74.5 percent, more than 80 000 decoders sold, Namibia will embark on launching DTH service to complement terrestrial coverage gaps (25%). South Africa missed the June 2015 transition date but has brought in the participation of the private sector, telecommunication companies and broadcasters to help expedite the implementation rollout.

“We are working on an aggressive project plan to expedite rollout,” said Wonder Dlangamandla, chief director of technology in the Department of Communication, adding that they aimed to complete STB rollout by December 2018. A lot of challenges exist as South Africa has a huge land mass and challenging landscape of about 1.2 million square kilometres. There is an uneven population distribution with big concentrations around urban metros with diverse cultural and regional make-up; varying living standards measures (LSMs), varying commercial interests and a tough balancing act.

The country has commercial digital satellite broadcast (DSB) services in place as an option for free-to-air and subscription based. Decommissioning of analogue sites is currently in progress enabled by ongoing STB rollout. There are 10 digital TV channels on DTT network, from only three channels in analogue; 18 radio stations available throughout the country in the digital TV network and there is room in the network for further channel expansion. An estimated 13 million households own television sets in South Africa and the government’s current commitment is to provide five million free STBs to the poorest households, including installations.

An estimated four million households already subscribe to the commercial digital satellite services offered by DSTV and OVHD and are deemed to have already migrated to digital. On 17 June 2015, Zambia managed to roll out DTT along the line of rail, while by 30 September 2017, forty 300W transmitters were to be installed covering 20-25 km radius. Further to that, 4/8 1.15kW DVB-T2 transmitters are to be installed by 31 October 2017. “The target is to have total of 73 transmission sites,” said Malolela Lusambo, project manager at Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation. Fifteen local content providers are riding on the public distributor’s DTT, which are the ZNBC TV1, ZNBC TV2, ZNBC TV3, Parliament TV and GO-TV. Fifteen DTT TV stations are yet to commence operations, while a film policy has been approved by Cabinet in June 2017.

“The objective is to accelerate content provision, grow the creative industry so as to contribute to GDP,” added Lusambo. However, Zambia is not without its challenges as language barriers have tended to make communication difficult; content service providers are not yet paying tariffs for being carried, land acquisition process, clearing process of goods is at times also lengthy due to border congestions. “Innovation, creativity, credibility is needed to keep the audience. Indeed digital migration is living up to expectation in Zambia,” he said. Zambia with a population of 16 million people, has 111 radio stations and 43 television stations. In Zimbabwe, 2/6 television studios, 6/48 digital transmitter sites, central content monitoring system, seven remote stations and 7/24 new tower installations have been completed.

The country has trained 33 engineers in equipment installation, operation and maintenance while all engineers have also trained the entire broadcasting chain. Basic training on content production was also done. But there are still major challenges to migrate to digital as there are inconsistent disbursements against other priorities and foreign currency shortages, according to Matthias Chakanyuka of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe.

There is uncertainty with regards to the project’s completion timeframe, non-fulfilment of expectations of new licensees and this has led to the loss of public confidence on digitalization. SADC member states have also yet to converge manufacturing standardised STBs in the region, eight years after the idea was introduced to generate economies of scale and make it more affordable to procure the boxes. Many African countries are importing STBs from outside while there are business and employment opportunities for member states that are capable of producing the boxes in the region. Many governments have to subsidize the STBs so that consumers can afford them, which would have been cheaper had they adopted a philosophy to share or spread manufacturing functions.

October 2017
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