There is urgent need for a digital switchover legislation
Three years after it came to an abrupt halt, the national digital switchover (DSO) programme has been resuscitated. The elaborate flag-off ceremony in Lagos on 29th April for its second phase was the culmination of activities, including the establishment of a 13-member ministerial task force headed by the Minister of Information and Culture. This followed approval by the Federal Executive Council of N9.4billion for the payment of outstanding debts to companies providing services. Alongside these have been giddy projections of what the programme will deliver to the country.
There is no doubt that the DSO holds much promise, especially in job creation and value-chain addition. Aside from kick-starting the digital economy, the successful actualisation of the DSO has the potential to boost the floundering effort in diversifying the nation's economy. It is projected that the federal government will earn an estimated $1billion from the sale of spectrum to ensure that the programme is self-financing. There are also projections that the broadcasting industry and digital economy will grow through increased advertising, revenue from Nollywood and value-added services.
However, while these projections are heart-warming, we are less than optimistic that the country will reap these munificent dividends, given how the DSO programme is being implemented. The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has hardly covered itself in glory. Its squalid handling of the programme, we recall, resulted in missed switchover deadlines in 2007, 2012, 2015 and 2017. In those years, less resourced countries, including in Africa, completed their switchover programmes.
There are other fears. Experts have identified the absence of a legal framework, as recommended by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as a major hindrance to successful DSO implementation. There is currently no law encompassing elements of digitisation or defining roles and responsibilities of the three tiers of government and the private sector. Besides, the programme is driven by the recommendations of the 2014 DSO Whitepaper, which many do not consider an actual law. We find it strange that a national undertaking of such significance is being implemented without any legislation.
This point was noted as far back as 2016 by the House of Representatives DSO Ad hoc Committee in its report on the investigation of the programme's implementation. The conspicuous absence of a legal framework encourages implementation on an ad hoc basis. The Ministry of Information and Culture, which has the duty to propose appropriate amendments to existing laws or enact new legislation for the DSO, has shown no interest along that direction. This, among other things, has rendered the programme an ethics-free trade zone in which middlemen run the show.
Meanwhile, the report of the House probe contains copious instances of rule-bending and indifference to due process. One company that serves as contractor/consultant on middleware payment and encryption for the national Set-Top-Box (STB) system secured its contract eight months before registration. This was in breach of the Procurement Act and other extant local legislations. The House also reported that the company usurped some of the functions of licensed signal distributors to earn money without any investment. The company provides the FreeTV decoder, NBC's vehicle for digital migration; and conditional access system on which it charges users conditional access fee (CAF) despite being just a contractor.
The goal of the DSO is to convert Free-to-Air analogue television signal to digital. It is not to birth a pay television enterprise with government resources. We therefore view the DSO implementation process as an extension of the country's trademark fire brigade approach to a matter of huge national significance. The DSO Whitepaper on which NBC relies is nothing more than a policy direction that requires its recommendation to be meshed into an actual law to have any legal effect.