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September 22, 2018

World readying to reap dividends of digital migration

Modern: Samsung digital TVs on sale at Mombasa’s Samba Electronics.
Modern: Samsung digital TVs on sale at Mombasa’s Samba Electronics.

Countries using analogue broadcasting after June 16, 2015 -- the global deadline for digital migration -- will have no protection from interference by digital signals across their borders, a 'Digital Dialogue' conference in Dubai was told.

Each country (signatories to the deadline) has the choice to (or not) adopt Digital Terrestrial Transmission services, whose benefits, experts argue, outweigh the costs for both broadcasters and consumers.

"There's a crunch coming," Peter Siebert, the executive director of DVB Project, told the Star in the sidelines of the conference.

"If a country doesn't make the switch by then (June 16, 2015), it'll have missed the train. There will be nobody to report to if digital signals from neighbouring countries interfere at its borders," he said.

Capital expenditure and operational costs for broadcasters using the DTT platform are estimated to be lower, while consumers will access clearer images and more channels.

"Countries that will take the lead will be positioned to reap more from the market, for example by developing expertise on the technology, which other countries will rely on at a cost," said Edmund Fianko, engineering manager at Ghana's National Communications Authority.

Kenya is set to make the first digital switch for Nairobi and its environs on December 13 -- coinciding with the country's 50th anniversary celebrations -- followed by gradual roll out in major towns.

Daniel Obam, a communications radio technology expert at Kenya's National Communications Secretariat, however said there were several challenges standing in the way of the switch-over.

"Will anyone ever say they are ready for analogue switch-off? I guess not, there'll always be one challenge or the other. So, I think it's best to do like Tanzania did (switch over and solve issues as they emerge)," said Obam.

Tanzania completed the switch over early in the year, eliciting mixed reactions from various interest groups. Some Tanzanian broadcasters have been lobbying to have the move rolled back.

Tanzania is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to complete the switch over. Eleven countries are yet to announce their migratiin deadlines in SSA, 17 have policy papers on migration, 20 have started piloting, while seven were early adopters (Mauritius).

Some of the challenges in rolling out digital broadcasting include issues of licensing (demand for multiple licences), signal distribution (spectrum), public versus commercial services, pay-TV vs free-to-air TV, and consumer readiness.

Consumers with analogue TV sets have to buy set-top boxes (DVB-T2) to decode digital signals. However, once a country completes the switch over, it is expected to bar further imports of analogue sets to spur uptake of intergrated digital television (iDTV) sets.

The iDTVs are at the moment expensive in Kenya, costing at least $1,000 (Sh87,600) per set, which is out of reach for many households. Set-top boxes instead cost about $57 (Sh5,000). This is still expensive despite subsidisation by the government, though some pay-TV providers have indirectly subsidised their STBs to about $29 (Sh2,500).

"There are only two brands of iDTV vendors in Kenya (Sony and Sumsung) since the last quarter of 2012," Obam told the Digital Dialogue conference, sponsored by Multichoice Africa, which is a key provider of TV content in the continent.

The Communications Commission of Kenya introduced a 'must carry' rule for set-top box vendors after it emerged some were locking out consumers from free-to-air TV channels when they do not pay monthly subscription for pay-TV. Opportunists are also swooping in early to skim consumers.

"The audience must access free-to-air even when they haven't paid subscriptions to set-top box vendors," said Obam.

Experts said the digital platfom provides opportunity for proliferation of broadcast channels (variety for consumers), wider access and choice of free-to-air TV, and usage of non-linear devices (web, mobile, tablets) to access TV.

Consumers will emerge winners due to heightened competition on the local content front. Experts also said the switch over portends TV revenue growth, besides slashed terrestrial distribution costs.

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