Africa: South Africa Announces Its Intention to Introduce Digital Radio - Will the Rest of the Continent Follow?

29 January 2021

London — In November last year the South African broadcast regulator ICASA published its Draft DSB Regulations 1 on the introduction of digital radio for consultation. Last week it held virtual public hearings. Russell Southwood looks at the arguments over doing it and what it may mean for the rest of the continent.

Almost two decades ago, Mauritius was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to introduce digital broadcasting. The process of transitioning to digital TV broadcasting in Sub-Saharan Africa has been a long one and it is not over yet. However, in many countries the investment made has greatly improved access to TV broadcasting and the spectrum gains have been useful for mobile operators offering mobile data services.

The advantages of digital radio have parallels with the discussion about digital TV broadcasting. The signal is spectrally more efficient and offers clearer reception for the user. More efficient spectrum use means that there can be more radio channels or stations. Another achievement of African digital TV broadcasting has been the increase in the number of TV channels and in some cases in the diversity and quality of content: for example, there are now education channels in a small number of countries. ICASA has said that the objective of licensing DSB services is to provide additional radio channels or pop-up channels under the DSB licensing framework.

However, unlike the DTT digital broadcasting transition, ICASA envisages digital radio running alongside analog without a switch-off date. In other words, they will be seen as two different types of radio. The disadvantage for anyone wanting to compete in this way is that - as with digital broadcasting - the potential listener will have to buy some hardware. In this case, it will be a DAB radio. Unlike the Set-Top-Box these come in at a variety of price points.

As with digital TV, there is a discussion over standards between Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) and Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM). Thus far DAB has been the standard adopted by all countries going down this road and many are European countries. The USA is using in-band on-channel technology that allows them to broadcast their analogue channels and their digital equivalents alongside each other.

According to ICASA:"The Authority anticipates that licensing in the DSB framework will be informed by the capacity available on the multiplexers and standalone channels. The draft Regulations envisage a phased approach to the introduction of DSB services, starting with the primary markets (Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal) and the next phase will be in the secondary markets (North West, Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape, Free State and Limpopo)."

The key question is does it make sense to roll-out DAB in other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa? For those countries that have not completed their DTT transition it makes no sense at all: the inability to do DTT would not bode well for a DAB roll-out. For countries that have completed - like Kenya and soon Ghana - it must be something that now comes to the top of the regulator's in-tray. Also there are still a number of countries that have not liberalized either their TV or radio waves. Perhaps this would offer an opportunity to do so.

It is harder to justify the additional investment as radio coverage in most countries reaches nearly all citizens. However, it would be good to use the process as a way of enfranchising those isolated communities that exist in every country and are often along their borders.

The bigger strategic question is whether it would be cheaper to provide digital radio streams using internet coverage or as is currently very popular across Africa, by having a radio receiver built into mobile phones.

Unlike digital television and its successor standards like 4K, the transition to digital radio is proceeding at a relatively stately pace. Therefore it makes sense for African regulators to start a discussion that asks: what do people want and what is the most cost-effective way of giving it to them?

In Brief

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