London — Three countries in West Africa have chosen to go the local route for the DTT switchover: Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. All of them have suffered teething problems or contractual disputes but both Ghana and Senegal are close to completion. It shows that the process can be handled locally and does not always need to be in the hands of international suppliers like Star Times. Russell Southwood talks to Sidy Diagne, CEO, Excaf about the lessons learned.
Excaf is a 42 year old family company with just over 500 employees that started life organizing exhibitions. Its current interests encompass two TV stations (RDV and DTV), 16 radio stations, of which the four main ones (Dunyaa FM, Al Hamdoullilah FM, Love FM and Sokhna FM) are in Dakar.
Its experience for the DTT transition came from running an MMDS network for pay TV for over 15 years. It won the contract to roll-out DTT in Senegal on a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis in 2014. It is a ten year contract renewable by both sides every 5 years and the contract does not start until the construction phase is complete. According to Diagne, Excaf is under pressure from the Government to complete by the end of this year
Within the contract, 25 transmission sites have to be built. So far it has completed 14 sites. Five sites need completion and a further five are awaiting the Government giving them sites on which to construct them. It will also be moving its downtown transmission site from its office building to a site at the edge of the city to provide better coverage. Population coverage is now 92% by terrestrial sites and 8% through a satellite contract. Excaf under pressure from Government to complete by end 2019.
Excaf has estimated that there are potentially 865,000 TV households and that over four years this will rise to 1 million. 500,000 set top boxes have been sold and they are still selling, albeit more slowly than after the initial launch.
The box has 17 local and international free-to-air channels (including RTS 1, Walf TV, CNN, China Radio, TV5, BFM TV, France 24, DW and BBC) as well as a 65 channel pay TV bouquet from Excaf itself. It has around 50,000 pay TV subscribers, which according to Diagne, is around half the size of the Canal+ subscriber base. Start Times withdrew from the Senegalese market when it failed to get the DTT infrastructure contract.
So what's the business model?:"We build the infrastructure with our own investment. There are four frequencies available but we only need two and those two include the pay TV bouquet. We will recover the investment costs through our pay TV subscriptions and also through other value added services".
The DTT transition in Senegal was not without its problems so I asked Diagne what went wrong and what were the lessons?:"The operating environment was not very good for a local, private Senegalese company. Most countries gave their DTT infrastructure project to an international company and here in Senegal, there were lots of competitors for the contract. The costs were over US$60 million. We had to finance that sum through French banks."
"We had to finance the cost of the decoders we were going to sell and there were issues about financing the amount of decoders needed. One of the banks who agreed withdrew." There were also software issues (now fixed) with some of the original boxes supplied by the French company it used and it had to supply new decoders. The basic decoder costs US$24.
But having learned the lessons from the process in Senegal, it has now won the contract to roll-out DTT in neighboring Gambia, based on the same BOT model:"Gambia is much smaller and will be much simpler to do than Senegal. It will be based on the same business model as in Senegal".
There will be 6 transmitters to cover 200,000 households:"We have already built two of the six and will finalize the rest by the end of the year. We have our own local company Excaf Gambia and will operate the project. We have a call centre with over 100 staff." But Diagne says having completed two countries, he does not have any ambitions to win other DTT contracts further afield.
What does he think the main impacts of the DTT transition have been?:"It has been a big change for the TV market. There is no longer a barrier between television and telecoms. You can watch TV on your smartphone and tablet. DTT offers better quality content."
Excaf is creating its own OTT platform called Wassa which Diagne describes as "a Netflix for Africa". It was launched at the end of June and offers Senegalese TV series and films.