London — The switchover to digital terrestrial television (DTT, get the latest report update here) in Africa should be completed within just over two years, by 17 June 2015 at the latest, but so far only 8 African countries have made the move. A majority of African TV organisations still run on analogue equipment and have a strong need for digital upgrades and technical skills. Market analyst Sylvain Beletre looks at the broadcasters readiness to make the transition.
Broadcasters are under pressure to revamp studios and vehicles, extend coverage through terrestrial networks and satellite and to maintain their newly acquired digital equipment to get a larger audience, provide a greater number of channels and better quality of picture and sound. For African TV stations, this transition represents huge investments and technical expertise, which they often source abroad. Which companies are helping them?
Over the past 30 years, IEC has become a recognised broadcast system integrator across Africa. The company has worked for TV and Radio station mainly in West and Central Africa, and recently in Zambia.
Balancing Act's Sylvain Béletre talks to Jean-Paul Douin, Export Manager about its broadcast activities in Africa.
Why do you work so much in Africa?
We have been working with African broadcast players for about 20 years now because our clients there need our strong technical expertise and equipment at competitive rates and sometimes within tight deadlines. Recently we have been focused on helping our clients migrate from an analogue to a digital environment and also to HD.
Who are your main clients in Africa?
We mainly work with the National Broadcasters in Western and Central Africa often through the Ministries of Communication. We also support private broadcasters. Here are a few examples: RTI-Ivory Coast, TV CONGO- Congo, ONRTV- Tchad, CRTV- Cameroun, TPA - Angola, RTD- Djibouti, RTG- Guinea, ORTM - Mali, RTS - Senegal, and more recently ZNBC in Zambia. Recently, TV stations have often contacted us to set up their DTT studio and transmission network.
What type of systems can you set up across Africa?
We are a distributor for all major brands and mostly a System Integrator which means that we set-up "turn-key" TV and Radio stations as well as OB trucks, DSNG Vans, Fly-away systems, or Satellite Up-links. In Zambia, we recently undertook a complete rehabilitation of ZNBC's OB truck with High Definition equipment: Sony HD CAMERAS, HD Video mixer and HD VTR's, Harris Glue and CG, EVS 8 channel HD Slow-mo Server, and so on.
IEC activities are focused on five major areas: Engineering: Design - Consultancy - Research and Development; Integration of audiovisual equipment; Sale of equipment; Services: Maintenance - hotline - training - duplication - staff delegation; and Export.
What are main challenges you face when you go there?
Most of the time, unfortunately, we have to work in emergency conditions because the funds given by our clients are only available just a few weeks - when lucky - before the job must be done. So it's a race against time! We have to gather the equipment from all manufacturers, pre-cable and test the configurations at the factory, make sure nothing is missing and then ship the equipment by air on time.
Custom clearance is often also a problem. Once we know that all the equipment has reached the client's premises we send our technicians on-site, verify again that everything is there because if you are missing just a simple connector, this can ruin your job.
As an example, we originally had 11 weeks to do the rehabilitation of the ZNBC OB van and found out that the OB would need to be ready to cover the UNWTO convention in Livingston.
This deadline meant that we only had 6 weeks to complete the work! So the challenge turned out to be huge. But thanks to our experience, the relationship we have with the manufacturers to get the equipment there on time, the expertise we have in export logistics and above all, the professionalism of our technicians, we finally made it on time.
What are the key issues with broadcast equipment currently installed in Africa?
It depends. Some countries are very late upgrading to digital and are still using analogue equipment. There is often a huge lack of maintenance and a lack of maintenance training.
Please give us examples of the systems you have set up in Africa?
Here are a few examples of what IEC has done across Africa:
- The People's Democratic Republic of Algeria: Installation of « La Chaîne du Savoir » (UFC), Turn-key digital TV and radio station, DSNG Van.
- Republic of the Congo: Installation of TV Congo in Brazzaville - Turnkey digital TV and Radio station, training.
- Installation of TV « Assemblée Nationale » in Brazzaville - Turnkey digital and Radio station, OB trucks and training.
- The Republic of Chad: Delivery and training of a Satellite UP-LINK Fly-Away system at ONRTV.
- The Gabonese Republic: Coverage of the 2005 Elections in Gabon, delivery of equipment, Live broadcasting, etc.
- The Republic of Côte d'Ivoire: Delivery and installation of Digital FM and TV transmitters for national coverage.
- The Republic of Senegal: Coverage of the 2008 OIC summit in Senegal, delivery of equipment, installation of 4 mobile TV studios and On air servers.
- The Republic of Zambia: Complete rehabilitation of the ZNBC OB Van with HD equipment.
- AFNEX: Delivery of 12 to 20 CAMERAS HD OB vans and DSNG Vans to AFNEX for the coverage of the 2010 CAN in Angola.
If you want quality, how much does digital equipment installation cost today for African TV channels and radio stations?
What's good for our clients is that the broadcast equipment in general gets cheaper - and more reliable and better - every year due to the use of computer-based, digital systems. There are several ways to set-up a TV or Radio station and this is where IEC is an important provider because as a system integrator and distributor of all major brands we can offer systems suited to our clients' budgets. We have built TV stations starting from 350K€ all the way to 12 millions and up.
How long does it take to set up or upgrade a TV or radio studio to digital?
From 3 weeks for a small private TV or Radio station to several months for bigger, more sophisticated systems.
What are the best technical options for an African TV station to go digital, extend its coverage and how much each option cost?
It all depends on the TV station's allocated budget. Again, there are many ways to go digital. As per coverage I would suggest them to choose the right satellite bouquet.
What about after sales service, customer support and technical training after the installation?
Technical training is an important issue with African broadcasters and I must add that there is still a big gap in that field. Technology is going very fast and unfortunately, African technicians, in most cases, haven't been trained in ages and do not get regular training updates. So it is difficult to train people who have been working on analogue equipment for many years and have them understand how HD works now.
What we get asked to do is to train younger generations who are more familiar with computerized equipment.
When it comes to After Sale Service, nowadays equipment is pretty reliable so we don't have much problem with that. In case of technical issues within the warranty conditions and jurisdiction, clients ship the faulty equipment back to us and we either repair it quickly or send another machine if we know it will take some time to repair. We have a dedicated 'Internal Service and Maintenance Department' fully registered with major brands like Sony, Panasonic, JVC so it makes things easier for our clients and for us to react promptly.
What are your financial terms and conditions?
Down and advance payments as well as L/C. It is important that payments are secured. We have seen so many companies going bankrupt by giving too much credit lines to International clients. IEC has been in this industry for 30 years, has more than 800 employees and is listed on the Stock Exchange; Today it is important for clients to work with well-established, financially solid and reliable structures like ours.
What is IEC's competitive advantage vs. companies like Grass Valley, Sony, Chinese vendors, etc.
As opposed to broadcast equipment manufacturers who can only offer their own brands, IEC can offer all brands and has the ability to choose what's best from each manufacturer and then integrate all this equipment to make it the best possible system. That is why we can offer multiple reliable turnkey systems at different budgets. Therefore the client has more choices. Moreover IEC has been working with Africa for 20 years, our technicians are used to working there.
As per the Chinese firms backed-up by the Chinese government, we cannot fight against them. Until now, several governments have never said NO to someone who is offering them to finance their projects with a 20 year loan at 0% rate or against raw materials. But at the end of the day I am convinced that those kinds of deals are a lot more costly for clients. By experience the 3 or 4 African National broadcasters who have had "turn-key" stations set up by Chinese companies are calling us again and really do need help! This is a sensitive and political problem.
How ready do you feel Central and West Africa are to go digital?
It varies; some countries are more prepared but knowing African people they will all be ready by 2015. In any case they don't really have the choice! Analogue gear is going to be obsolete soon.
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