13 December 2012

Nigeria: Concerns for Nigeria As Digital Broadcast Migration Deadline Beckons

Imagine this scenario. You are at home watching a late night programme on your favourite television channel on June 16, 2015, then its midnight and into the early hours of June 17, picture quality on your television becomes blurred, you try to switch channels, its the same thing every where you tune to, you go back to previous channels and discover that all channels on your television have lost signal.

You give up and go to bed, hoping to call in the repairers to check the television in the morning. Day breaks and by the time you get to the office, everyone is complaining of the same thing, television sets have lost signals, everyone is confused but no one seems to know what the problem is.

The scenario painted above and more is what will happen to television households in Nigeria on June 17, unless urgent and drastic steps are taken by relevant government authorities to meet the deadline for switchover from analogue to digital television broadcasting.

In simple terms, Digital broadcast migration basically, is the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting. The decision for this transition was reached at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) conference held in Geneva, in June 2006, where several continents, including Africa, and Nigeria as a country.

As signatory to the agreement, the implication is that unless the country takes necessary steps and switches over to digital broadcasting before 2015, Nigerians would not be able to watch television anymore. Many Nigerians are not aware of this and the government appears to be dragging feet towards the switchover date.

But experts have said the implications for failure to meet the deadline are more, just as there are numerous challenges for the country, pre and post transition.

This and others formed the crux of discussions when experts on digital broadcast converged on Lagos for a two days exposition, tagged Digital Dialogue Nigeria.

Convener of the conference, Jenkins Alumona said the purpose of the conference, which had media professionals across various broadcast and print media, was to create awareness on the all important issue to let people understand what was to come and also draw attention of the government to the implications, in the event that the deadline is not met.

He expressed worry that Nigerians would be ripped off by shylock technicians in the event that the above scenario plays out and expressed the hope that government was working silently towards the big date.

But there are also fears that the security network in the country may be compromised if Nigeria fails to meet the deadline.

Professor of communications at the Pan-African University, Lagos, Emevwo Biakolo raised the concern in his lead paper titled "The role of the mass media in attaining digital migration 2015. He said "High powered transmissions may lead to interference from (or by) neighbouring countries, which could in turn create a compromise of national security; due to critically affected national sectors like broadcasting, telecommunications, maritime (maritime communication) and aviation (aeronautic communication)."

Biakolo, who is also the Dean, School of Media and Communications, at the university, said security outfits, including "The Nigeria Police Force, State Security Services (SSS), The Nigerian Army, The Nigerian Navy, The Nigerian Air Force, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Agency and Nigerian Maritime Administration & Safety Agency," would be affected as the switchover would convert the entire broadcast network by switching the terrestrial platform from analogue to digital, just as high power transmissions may lead to interference from or by neighbouring countries.

He lamented that a white paper by the government based on the recommendations of the Presidential Action Committee (PAC) on the matter was yet to be made public and urged the media to get a hold of the white paper and assume the role of drivers of the policy by interpreting the document to key stakeholders and members of the public and also advocating benefits of digital broadcasting to end users.

But the Director-General, National Broadcasting Commission, Engr. Yomi Bolarinwa who declared the workshop open averred that while Nigeria was a signatory to the ITU agreement and had opted for DVB-T2 technology of set-top boxes to be used post transition, it would be impossible for the ITU to switch-off countries if they did not have the means to go digital and receive signals, adding that the Nigerian constitution, which was superior to every other law, guarantees right to information, a role the television played.

He however noted that digitisation was important as it leads to convergence and convergence to conversion, which makes life better and easier.

He added that while it would be necessary for transition to take place along borders, to avoid interference with or from signals of neighbouring countries, internal transition could be done later, in phases.

Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on Media Matters was quick to come to the rescue of the government, saying the present administration was doing all within its means to ensure that the switchover is made possible by 2015 even as he warned against cynicism towards government policies.

In his earlier presentation titled "DVB-T2 around the world", new chair of Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) Technical Module, Dr. Nick Wells explained the DVB-T2 technology and why it was the next best thing for digital television broadcasting, saying it could typically deliver 50 per cent more data than DVB-T

He expressed happiness that Nigeria had already opted for the latest technology, describing countries who had made the decision as far sighted, but said there was a need for the country to fast track efforts as the process was a really long walk.

But a consultant of the ITU on broadcast engineering, Engr. Edward Amana was optimistic that Nigeria would meet the deadline.

In his paper titled "Technical Imperatives of Digital Migration in Nigeria," Amana, former executive director of engineering with Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), said the transmission would be done in phases, saying government had to choose possible switch off method, whether phased shut off, nationwide shut off or partial shutdown.

He however expressed worry that the government despite having received a report of the PAC in June 2009 which it approved only this year was yet to initiate a Bill to the National Assembly to facilitate transmission, explaining that the Act establishing the NTA had to be changed as government had chosen it as one of the carriers for the transmission, to separate NTA the content provider and NTA the signal provider.

Amana recommended that government must set up an implementation committee with clear terms of reference to enable Nigeria meet the deadline.

In a heart-rending presentation titled "The dynamics of content development in a digital broadcast environment," vivacious screen writer, Amaka Igwe stressed the need for major investment in content as digital broadcasting would provide enormous hours of programming, which content would be required to fill.

She painted a gloomy picture of current day television channels, saying those that lacked creativity and dynamism may fizzle out, adding that under the new deal, new skills and tricks would be required just as there would be dynamic changes and new styles of advertising.

Day two of the conference, held at Southern Sun Hotel Ikoyi, Lagos, and anchored by the duo of South African based new media enthusiast, Aki Anastasiou and Okechukwu Onyegbule (Okey Bakassi) had legal icon, Efere Ozako presenting a paper titled "creating a framework for digital migration in Nigeria," summed it up that "Failure to migrate may take us back to the dark ages."

He said there had to be a change in laws, determination off standards, development of policies and aggregation of what needs to be done with steps to effect them and follow up to ensure that time lines are met.

Ozako stressed the need for all Nigerians to work together as all Nigerians were involved.

"By the end of the 31st December, 2014, laws, regulations and policies are in place, content licensees and signal distributors have been appointed, all the required and standard infrastructure has been manufactured, procured and installed by all licensees, the modalities for the manufacture and/or procurement of set top boxes have been settled, hopefully, there is adequate programming in place to fill all the hours and all hitches, technical or regulatory, teething problems , etc , have been addressed or are being addressed," he added.

Overall, the conference afforded media professionals a platform to discuss issues in the migration process with a hope that Nigeria is not left out, come June 17, 2015.

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