London — Almost four years have passed since the original ITU deadline for the switchover to digital broadcasting in Africa, designed to free up spectrum, improve broadcast quality and extend viewer choice. Benin and Nigeria offer contrasting stories of progress. Russell Southwood looks at what's happening in Benin and what went wrong in Nigeria.
In early April Serge Koudjo, General Secretary at the Ministry of Digital Economy and Communications announced that StarTimes had completed four DTT transmission sites in the major urban areas of Cotonou, Gbéhoué, Abomey-Calavi and Porto-Novo.
"Benin will open its TNT network within a few months," he said, adding that several other projects are underway and others in preparation to densify and complete the construction of the network so that the digital broadcast services are really effective. In May 2019, a further announcement from the Benin Government said that 28 of the 29 digital transmission sites were now operational. These sites now cover 80% of the country's population.
On the supply side, the platform potentially offers 18 channels and agreements to transmit have been agreed with 14 out of the 15 channels selected. These have also been piloted using 150 StarTimes decoders.
To cover those areas outside the reach of terrestrial digital transmitters, the Government contracted with satellite provider SES earlier in the year to carry the 15 free-to-air channels already agreed. The satellite platform also has the potential to transmit HD channels into Benin.
So now the hard work begins of selling the switchover to Benin's citizens with the roll-out of a communication campaign on the switchover to digital TV and the distribution of decoders. This process has been spearheaded by the DTT Steering Committee of the Presidency of the Republic of Benin under Darium Quenum.
Serge Koudjo also concluded his April announcement by saying that Benin's "code numerique" would be promulgated by President Patrice Talon in the coming days. This 674 article law is unusual in the African context in that it brings together a framework for both networks and services as well as for digital tools and content.
So the DTT process in Benin has been slow in coming, is not yet completed but however slow it has been, there is a structure in place to now bring about a consumer roll-out in a reasonable period of time.
Contrast this with Nigeria. The process has not only been slow moving but mired in political controversy from the outset. In September 2015, the broadcast regulator NBC sold 700 MHz spectrum that had been allocated to broadcasting to MTN. As Emeka Mba, the then head of NBC saw it, he was selling spectrum to raise the money to finance the switchover process. Nevertheless, he was arrested and then subsequently released without charge over how the transaction had been handled.
Pinnnacle Communications (trading as Pinnacle Broadcast) was appointed as the signal distributor and it was decided that the set-top boxes would be produced in Nigeria. This meant that they needed to have conditional access so that consumers could not simply buy (probably cheaper) imported boxes. Both courses of action have been subject to controversy.
The granting of the contract to Pinnacle Communications has been the subject of an inquiry by the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission. In a statement from Pinnacle Broadcast in January 2019 in responses to charges being filed, it announced that it was launching a claim for damages as the ICPC had frozen its bank accounts without a magistrates order. Subsequently a court lifted the bank account freeze order. It has also issued a pre-notice of a libel action for the contents of an ICPC press release issued in November 2018.
Emeka Mba, former head of NBC was interviewed on 19 May 2019 on local news programme Arise News. He told his interviewers:"There are some things I'm not at liberty to share... .Some people are not happy with the decisions I took." On the charges of corruption, he said:"This is really the challenge any time there's a lot of money" but defended the process by saying it had been transparent and that he had met the stakeholders to explain his decisions.
He pointed out that the digital switchover had started with a pilot in Jos but his assessment of progress to date was downbeat:"There's been slow progress and it's hard work."
Speaking at a conference in Ogun State, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo reiterated that Nigeria's digital switchover process being led by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) would make Nigeria the most prominent digital TV market in Africa.
To overcome the problems outlined above, the broadcast stakeholders recommended that there was a DSO Implementation Presidential Task Force, or the NBC should put back in place the Digiteam with a mandate to implement the Digital Switchover Program in accordance with the Government's White Paper.
According to the stakeholders, the chosen team should be led by a knowledgable, seasoned stakeholder as administrator with no less than 10 additional members selected from the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), Association of Licensed STB Manufactures of Nigeria (STBMAN), Association of Cable Satellite Operators of Nigeria (ACON), Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), The Governors Forum, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), APCON and NBC, and representatives from Ministry of Trade and Industry.
So four years in from the original ITU deadline, nothing in Nigeria is clear about the process and the digital Free TV platform advertised on NBC's website is marooned. There has been little or no progress on getting the digital switchover done.
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