When South Africa began broadcasting on digital transmissions last December, kicking off a period of “dual illumination” before it switches off analog signals, it became the latest African nation to sluggishly make the transition to DTT, six months after the June deadline set by the Intl. Telecommunication Union (ITU).
But the slow implementation of a process that was supposed to begin several years ago for Africa’s most-developed economy underscores the challenges for digital migration across the continent. Nearly a year after the ITU deadline mandated analog switch-off across most of the continent, just six African nations have managed to complete the turnover to DTT.
Yet in the long run, the digital transition will “revolutionize the African audiovisual and telecoms landscape,” according to a recent report from telecoms, Internet and broadcast consultancy firm Balancing Act. The challenge is getting government and industry stakeholders on board to foot the bill for the transition, educating the public about its benefits and finding a way to finance what many hope will be a production boom across the continent.
“The good news is … they all understand the issues that are part of the DTT process,” says Sylvain Beletre of Balancing Act. “They all agree on the fact that DTT is the cheapest option … for universal (TV) access. They also understand that there’s got to be agreements with the private sector. Two years back, very few (countries) had a plan.”
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This is arguably a golden age for the African TV sector, which business event organizer Basic Lead, host of the twice-yearly Discop Africa TV content market, estimates to be a $1 billion-a-year industry — a figure it says has doubled in the past three years. Incomes across the continent have been steadily rising for over a decade, giving rise to a formidable African middle class. Today there are an estimated 110 million TV households across Africa, with more than 9 million having access to DTT at the close of 2015, according to Balancing Act, which says that number is quickly growing.
Financing the transition has been the greatest obstacle so far. “The problem is that DTT doesn’t really generate money for (governments),” says Beletre, noting that many countries face more basic and pressing needs as they grapple with the high cost of switching over.
Private players have entered the fray, with Chinese pay-TV provider StarTimes, and GOtv, owned by South Africa’s Multi-Choice, leading the continent’s digital migration efforts.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy, where the switchover will cost an estimated half a billion dollars, the government has entered into a wide-ranging partnership with StarTimes to offset the costs. In countries where the TV market has been liberalized, the additional spectrum space freed up by DTT migration is being sold to 4G mobile networks — a strategy that helped to finance the switchover in many European nations, says Beletre.
The African market, though, can be volatile. Both the Nigerian naira and the South African rand have nose-dived in the past year, causing a spike in inflation and operating costs while denting consumer spending.
Legal potholes also remain. Last year, StarTimes took the Ghanaian government to court for breach of contract, after it accused the West African nation of abruptly and unlawfully terminating an agreement for the Chinese company to oversee its digital migration. In Nigeria, courtroom battles over DTT carrier licenses have threatened to derail a process that is already two years behind schedule.
Still, Beletre notes the slow process of DTT migration in more developed economies, such as France, which has been beset by its own delays and legal squabbles.
African governments, he says, have learned lessons from “countries where DTT has been deployed, and they’ve looked at the pitfalls and opportunities.”