15 November 2017

Nigeria: Another Appraisal of NBC's Digital Switchover

opinion

Abuja — Evidently, one of the measureable achievements of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is the dexterous implementation of the nation's switch from analogue to digital broadcasting, otherwise known as the Digital Switch Over (DSO), by the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) as mandated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). As the Director General of the NBC, Mallam Is'haq Modibbo Kawu, noted recently, Nigeria's DSO process has become the most talked about in Africa - An initiative that was designed by Nigerians and currently being implemented by Nigerians. Like most other seasoned and practicing Communication Engineers in the country, I can attest to the fact that the success of Nigeria's DSO programme has made the NBC a reference point for several African nations currently contending with the teething stages of their own DSO projects. The near miraculous success of the current Management team at NBC in bringing the DSO back on track would be further appreciated if it is clarified that crass ineptitude and corruption had all but derailed the DSO process under the previous management at the Commission, necessitating a major probe by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). All hopes seemed lost until President Muhammadu Buhari approved the appointment of the Is'haq Modibbo Kawu led team at NBC in 2016.

Like most Communication Engineers would readily attest to, switching a huge country like Nigeria from analogue to digital broadcasting requires tremendous technical, financial and institutional commitment. More so, the current management team at NBC came on board when the Commission was contending with huge funding issues that were largely necessitated by the freezing of the Commission's bank accounts by the EFCC. However, drawing on the huge goodwill and total commitment of President Muhammadu Buhari to the digital switch over, the NBC has since 2016 been granted access to funds duly appropriated and released for the DSO programme and has hit the ground running.

Industry experts evidently agree that the reinvigorated NBC has now placed Nigeria in the world map as the nation with the fastest analogue to digital broadcasting transition record. The NBC has since carried out the DSO in Abuja, the nation's capital - offering thirty local, regional and national channels to viewers in the city. This, of course is an upgrade from the 15 channels that the NBC offered in Jos, Plateau State, when it launched the pilot phase of the DSO in April 2016. Following the successful launch of the Abuja switch over last December, NBC has commenced an aggressive launch of DSO across the country, beginning with one state from each of the six geo-political zones of Nigeria. Thus the activation of the DSO is currently being accelerated in Kaduna in the Northwest; Gombe in the Northeast; Kwara in the North Central; Osun in the Southwest; Delta in the South-South and Enugu in the Southeast. Also, as at October 2017,the NBC and its partnering vendors had imported over 745, 480 Set-Top-Boxes (STBs) into the country. Of this number, over 700, 000 STB's are said to have been delivered. Records also show that over 500, 000 Set-Top-Boxes have been sold and activated.

Curiously, in spite of the best efforts of the NBC, several Nigerians and even organisations have erroneously formed and are disseminating the opinion that June 17th 2017 is the date Nigeria ought to have achieved 100 per cent digital switch over. This, of course, is not true. However, even persons who ought to know better have begun criticizing and lampooning the NBC for "missing" this so-called deadline. But as the Director-General of the NBC, Mallam Modibbo Kawu has repeatedly told Nigerians, June 17th, 2017, was merely earmarked as a benchmark date for the digital switchover in Nigeria and that the Commission's mission and vision remains constant: to switch off analogue completely when Nigeria achieves up to 95 percent access to Free Digital Television content across the country. Even then, experts insist that the delicate nature of the DSO, has always obliged countries to carefully manage the process to mitigate complications. Several instances abound where, owing to snags, some countries had to adjust their switch off dates. Again, the NBC has assured that one of the most feared complications in digital switchovers globally - the problem of trans-border signal interference from analogue transmitters would not occur in Nigeria given that our neighboring countries have not achieved anything close to what Nigeria has been able to do so far. As a matter of fact, given my knowledge of the industry, I dare posit that none of the countries in the ECOWAS sub-region has a DSO process that matches what Nigeria currently has.

Mallam Is'haq Kawu, the extremely hardworking Director General of the NBC has frequently assured that all Nigerians are entitled to access to information, irrespective of class, creed or location; and that the new technology of digital broadcasting is already enhancing access in a most revolutionary manner. As learnt, the NBC projects that by the end of this year, at least half of the country would have access to Free Digital Television content. The Commission's timeline plan is to execute a phased implementation of six states, at a period. Once the six states currently in progress are fully switched over, the Commission would choose another set of six states, reflecting the geo-political zones, for the next phase, until the entire country is completely covered.

Given that the DSO process usually poses huge financial, technical and logistical challenge, it is commendable that the current NBC management has adopted prudence as a watchword, especially in its procurement processes. On this score, it is a notorious fact that the NBC insists only on vendors and other supply chain partners that make rational, reasonable and affordable bids. Pursuant to this, the Commission has expectedly stepped on formidable toes - fat cats who were poised to reap off the nation. It is therefore not surprising that many of these rejected contractors have gone to town with all sorts of nefarious claims about the DSO. The most outlandish of course is the much trumpeted allegation that obsolete technology is being deployed for Nigeria's DSO. Having trained and worked for over 18 years as a communication Engineer, I can only dismiss this allegations as not just illiterate but laughable. The truth of this matter is that communication technology changes frequently and this usually do not negate the essentials or fundamentals of the preceding technology. I have, with all sense of responsibility and patriotism carried out a thorough appraisal of the technology thus far deployed for Nigeria's DSO and I totally disagree with persons peddling the utter falsehood that they are obsolete. They are not at all. I believe it is about time Nigerians began rising above pecuniary and self-serving considerations and join efforts to rid this nation of engrained corruption in our procurement processes. It is my candid view that the NBC under the very focused Mallam Is'haq Modibbo Kawu needs our collective support and encouragement as it rigorously and dexterously pursue the DSO efforts rather than the distractions and all-too typical ranting of very rich but extremely corrupt contractors and their cohorts.

Umoh, a Communication Engineer, wrote this piece from Abuja.

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