Doubts dim Africa’s digital migration

By FREDRICK OBURA in Johannesburg

Most households in Africa are unlikely to access their television programmes come 2015.

Telecommunication experts meeting in South Africa at this year’s Multi-Choice Digital Dialogue Conference noted that the continent is still ill prepared towards beating the 2015 digital migration deadline.

This would probably lead to TV blackout as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has set a global deadline of 2015-three years away from now- for the transfer of TV programming from the current analogue to digital platforms.

The South African Digital Broadcasting Association Managing Director Koenie Schutte casted his doubt over the migration process in Africa. “It is evident that many countries in the continent are not likely to beat the 2015 deadline, leaving several options for regulators,” he said. “If the deadline was extended to 2020, maybe I would say yes,” he added.

Schutte blamed the slow process to misplaced regulations, lack of content, and low level of consumer awareness in the continent.

“We have less than three years to the deadline and a number of countries are still on the debating stages, they are arguing on the types of decoders to adopt,” he noted.

In working closer with the industry, he observed need for fairness in issuance of distribution license.

“The licences should be distributed fairly to all players, I don’t think it is fair for some regulators to delay issuing of licence to other interested parties,” he said.

The migration process in Kenya was set to be completed by June this year, three years ahead of the global deadline. Communication Commission of Kenya was forced to cancel the self set deadline to some unknown dates in early next year.

Implementation hurdles

Some of the challenges the commission cited for the delay in the 2012 deadline was lack of money to create awareness among its citizen and the exorbitant price of decoders which rivals the prices of television sets. The Government has since then moved to address some of the challenges such as making decoders affordable through the removal of taxes in the 2012/13 budget.

It has also licensed two firms (Signet and Pan Africa Network Group or Pang) to distribute digital channels. The two firms that have the licences said they would have covered 70 per cent of Kenya by end of this year. Waithaka Waihenya, KBC managing director – which runs Signet – said the State firm has been slow in deploying equipment needed for the roll out of its signals but added that it would have covered 70 per cent of the country by January, and the rest of the country in the course of next year.

“We have our signals live in Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa and Nakuru. Installation is ongoing in Nyeri, Kisii, Eldoret and Meru and will be complete by end of this year,” he said. He added that three other sites in Western and the Coast would be ready by January.

When in place, Signet signal will be able to cover 70 per cent of the local population.  Pang Chief Executive Michael Wu said the firm will cover 70 per cent of the population by end of this year.

The firm plans to invest $160 million (Sh13 billion) for the entire roll out of its platform. UK Digital Communication Director Beth Thoren asked African countries to focus on awareness creation to smoothly migrate its people to full opportunities in digital broadcast.

The UK was the first country to switch to digital broadcasting after more than five years of trial.

“A budget of $ 200 million (Sh17 billion) was a plus to us in the migration, we educated the public accordingly and stuck to the date we set for the switch over,” she said at the conference.