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Are African countries ready for the analog switch off?

A big number of African countries have their Television broadcast and received in analog mode over the terrestrial air waves. With digital transmission, the picture and audio of the television station are converted into corresponding binary form (ones and zeros), then subjected to a number of digital manipulations before being transmitted.

Digital transmission allows for better use of available frequency resources allowing other services to be transmitted over the same airwaves at the same time freeing up frequencies for other services. Terrestrial digital television encourages an increase in the number of programmes available, improves quality and accessibility and creates new media services. It also provides for better Television viewing experience as it provides better picture and audio quality. It adds ability for interactive TV and at the same time flexibility to the broadcaster.

Today, these various benefits of digital transmission make a move to digital broadcasting (known as digital migration) imperative for television and radio. This is why the International Telecommunications Union recommended, in the Regional Radiocommunications Conference, 2006(RRC-06), all countries to move to digital broadcasting by the year 20151. From this conference, it was resolved that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would not protect any analog Television broadcasting, meaning analog TV signals will be susceptible to interference from different transmitters thus suggesting an analog switch off. By analog switch off we mean stop support for analog transmission and only support (allow) digital.

To this note, ITU has provided consulting services for broadcasting infrastructure development. It has developed reports and guidelines needed for the Analog to digital transition2. The ITU has also provided training in different places and provided close cooperation with regional broadcasting organisation through regular workshops and seminars. It has performed spectrum allocations and wave propagation recommendations, provided a white paper about the transition from analog to digital terrestrial broadcasting and examined terrestrial digital broadcasting technologies through research on the topic.

Africa as a continent, and the African Union in particular the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), has Developed a roadmap on digital migration that involved frequency coordination on transition, timelines and way forward to make sure the deadline by ITU is beaten. ATU has developed a Digital Migration and spectrum policy through a number of constitutional meetings and in collaboration with ITU, regional telecommunications bodies and commercial firms in the telecommunications market. It has also held a number of follow-up meetings3 with different regional bodies to monitor progress by different regional bodies and independent nations and harmonise systems for a smooth beating of the ITU deadline.

It however looks like over 42 African countries4 out of the 54 are unlikely going to meet the ITU deadline. In the East African Community, Burundi, Uganda and Southern Sudan are listed among these countries. 35 countries had not announced the schedule timetable of events, four countries were still affected by Civil unrest, seven had come up with policy papers and or a Task force as to this effect, four were above the schedule of the policy by at least 6 months, six had piloted the policy, nine had launched with only one completed (Mauritius) by 29th November 2011.

Uganda as a developing country, formulated a body (Digital Migration Working Group) that spearheaded the process of policy formulation under the ministry of Information and communications technology. This body finalised on the Digital Migration Policy in April 20115 which policy instituted another body (Digital Migration Task Force) tasked to run the process of the digital migration. The government through the mentioned bodies started a campaign of massive public awareness through different existing television channels supported by the Uganda communications Commission. The switch over time table was also generated which was supposed to have three years of dual-Illumination with the national analog switch-off date set for Dec-2012.

Challenges to speedy digital migration

Just like other countries in Africa, Uganda faced a problem of financial limitations, with questions of where were the funds going to be received from. Well knowing that the transition takes at least some years and costs so much and immense influence on society, economy and industries, Uganda was not ready for this challenge. Politics in most of the African countries has been a problem to an extend some countries have not had a running government for a number of years. Policy frame work alignment was also a problem in some African countries where it took too much time to come up with a working policy and even after this policy, the deadline was near coming. National priority remained a challenge is some countries where this matter never made to the top five of national discussion items in some countries. Stakeholder awareness remains a challenge and a number of people are not aware of what is going on.

 

It is however urged that some Countries can remain in the analog TV transmission even after 2015 basing on the little publicized fact that the 2006 treaty allows for an additional five years for a total of 30 African nations beyond the 2015 cut-off point6. (Most Latin American countries, incidentally, have agreed to a switch-off of analogue TV transmissions around 2020). In other words, more than two-thirds of the countries on the African continent are exempt from the 2015 deadline, and instead have a 2020 switch-off date, even though some have voluntarily committed to the earlier time in agreements in regional fora and/ or through domestic policy decisions. Even still the RRC-06 decision stops ITU from intervening to protect a country’s TV broadcast signals in any instances where these are being swamped by a neighbour’s, unless those signals have been switched to digital. In reality, however, this issue of signal swamping or cross-border interference with signals is not a serious issue in most African countries. On the contrary, huge swathes of the African population still do not even receive TV broadcasting signals of any sort, or at best can pick up a single national TV channel. In other cases, African audiences welcome spill-over across borders, which may offer a little more choice. The point then is that African countries can probably still continue analogue TV long after deadline without really any incurring serious disadvantages in terms of aggressive neighbouring broadcasters bothering their national signal space. The few disputes that may occur will not necessarily even require ITU intervention to resolve.

Successful Migration requires Strong leadership of government, Firm decision of analogue TV switch-off, Close cooperation of Regulator and market parties, Clear and timely regulatory framework and Adequate information and assistance to viewers7.

A group of people recommend that satellite coverage would provide a cheaper short to medium term alternative as countries are sorting out their houses to get ready for 2015. Countries to subsidize decoders which cost significantly high could also enable the process. Since in some of African countries TV is still under a government monopoly, opening up the business to private investors to allow innovations and investment in the move.

It is from this note that one wonder whether African countries are doing enough to get ready for the analog switch-off. What do you think should be done for these countries to be ready for the deadline. Do you think African countries will continue with analog TV broadcasting even after 2015?

Your view.

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