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Five African countries have had public launches of DTT broadcasting and have set-top boxes on sale. Ten countries are at the pilot stage but this may be misleading as a pilot can be anything from a fully-fledged pilot with a major broadcaster to a much smaller test with a pay TV operator. Eight countries have put together a policy document (sometimes sent to Government) and in some cases, they have set up a committee or Task Force to oversee implementation.

The reason for concerns about countries missing the ITU deadline is that the experience of the current countries involved shows that the policy process that comes before implementation can take 2-3 years, leaving only a relatively small amount of time to carry through the implementation. Only Mauritius has a switch off date (2012) for analogue that is likely to be met.

There are a number of issues about the specifications for set-top boxes and clearly the greater number of countries buying similarly specified boxes, the lower the price. But there have not really been co-ordinating meetings on the subject except in East Africa. Sadly Africa’s unfortunate international reputation of not addressing important issues until “five minutes to midnight” may yet turn out to be true unless something happens soon.

The challenge for African Government and regulators is that the digital transition seems to contain a number of negatives. In order to get digital transmissions, their citizens will either have to buy a set-top box (usually around US$50) or a digital television (which can be upwards of US$300 at the lower end). Although the South African Government has devised a subsidy scheme for those who will not be able to afford the set-top box, most other Governments have focused on removing tax from cost of the box. The cost of making the transition to digital production for the state broadcaster and the need to buy new transmission equipment all raise the cost barrier.

However, there are a number of significant benefits. Once the transition to digital broadcasting has been made, spectrum can be used more efficiently thus freeing up more spectrum for new uses. Letting spectrum will raise new income for cash-strapped governments. It will improve the broadcast signal quality and potentially increase the number of people who can watch television by increasing the coverage area: new signal carriers (as in Tanzania) will allow broadcasters to share transmission costs. More channels will allow broadcasters to offer a greater diversity of content (particularly local content) and (as has been promised in South Africa and Mauritius) a greater range of languages. Finally, with the right incentives African governments can increase investment and jobs in the local TV sector.

The change in channels available comes at a moment when Africa public broadcast is showing signs of reconsidering itself. There are few isolated examples where countries might yet be seeking to move on from Mr President TV, something that simply does not work in a competitive media environment. The news item in the Broadcast section below on ORINFOR in Rwanda is one example and there were similar noises from NBC in Namibia a few months back. Perhaps now is the time to look at new structures that reflect a wider range of citizen interests rather than simply those of the ruling party. Using the new digital channels to provide an entertaining education channel could be another clear dividend.

A country like Tanzania shows that the digital transition can be made if your Government and regulator are determined. Its regulator TCRA has licensed three broadcast signal carriers, ensuring some competition for services and investment. One of those signal carriers – Chinese company Star TV – has set up transmission for initially four regions (Dar es Salaam, Dodoma,Mwanza and Arusha). Set-top boxes can be bought for US$45.70 or rented for US$5.87 a month. Initial sales when they were first launched were 1,000-2,000 per day.

Balancing Act has published a Briefing Paper entitled The digital transition – changing how broadcast functions which looks at: 1. Why the digital transition is taking place; 2. The digital dividend; 3. Current state of play; and 4. Succeeding in a multi-channel world.