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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Whether digital migration in Nigeria?

Recently a one-day Digital Migration Media Workshop was held at the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI), Utako-Abuja to sensitize media practitioners on prospects of digital migration in Nigeria.

One key aspect of the workshop was the fact that the most of the participants if not all were not aware of what has become the state of the plans of the federal government through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to ensure that Nigeria is part of the digital migration which date was set by the United Nations for 2015.

Initially, African countries under the aegis of African Minister of Information and Communication Technologies, had agreed to schedule its own date to enable various countries on the continent to evaluate selves early enough before the 2015 deadline, hence the came up with the strategy of 2012 deadline for Africa.

As of today, most African countries seen not comfortable with the Africa deadline of 2012, including Nigeria which has moved on with the global switch-over date as well as Australia whose deadline has gone till 2019.

Presenting a research outcome on ‘Update on the implementation of Digital Transition in Nigeria,’ at the workshop, founder of eShekels, Mr. Fola Odufuwa noted that Nigeria would require Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the broadcasting industry to meet up with the 2015 digital broadcasting migration deadline, insisting that micro-economy is incapable of funding digital migration for the nation.

He also warned against uncoordinated deployment of digital equipment in Nigeria among the players in the industry, more so in the wake of adamant posture of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), an agency of the federal government charged with this mission of digital migration.

He noted that even if the digital equipment are to be produced locally, the producers may have to be supported to be able to generate programmes if broadcasters are to fill regulatory quotas for local content on the new platforms, which also involves funding.

His position was evident on the fact that Nigeria has what Odufuwa described as a “debt markets hold on short term funds,” explaining that this kind of climate is unreliable to support relatively long breakeven periods for digital broadcasting investments.

Stakeholders, he recalled, had argued in the course of the study that the macro-economy, prevalent in Nigerian debt market holds short term funds, therefore, it would be incapable to support relatively long breakeven periods for digital broadcasting reserves.

Odufuwa also stated in the study sponsored by the Association of Progressive Communication (APC) that broadcast production and studio equipment are progressively being converted to digital output, in uncoordinated fashion by both private and public stations across the country.

He added that the main motivation for this trend was the increasing obsolescence of analogue studio equipment as opposed to the strategic implementation of any official digitalisation plan.

Equally, he said, the study revealed that stakeholders were doubtful of the ability of the government through the regulators, especially the broadcasting industry, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to achieve the anticipated aggressive digitalisation ambitions.

“In spite of the latest pronouncements, NBC’s pro-activeness and the broad industry acceptance of the need to make the digital move, doubts persist among stakeholders as to the ability of the government to achieve its aggressive digitalisation ambitions,” Odufuwa stated through his representative, Mr. Emmanuel Edet.

A number of the respondents, he said, were of the view that the government is under-estimating the huge complexities to be faced in implementing the migration and probably needs to first focus on making the regulator more efficient. Listing some of the issues’ outline to include that they believe there would need to be contended with bureaucracy and red-tape as well as capital outlay.

Decrying the non-availability of the White Paper on Digital Broadcast Migration based on the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) report at the public domain, he said, it was due for release over 20 months ago.

“Though admittedly, there has been a change in office bearers and the President was only sworn in February 2010, respondents say that the seemingly laid-back attitude of the regulator coupled with the “fire brigade” or general “last minute” tendencies of the civil service may prevent the attainment of the change-over ambition within the timetable suggested,” he noted, emphasizing the need for some financial assistance of sorts or cheaper funding sources to be extended to private broadcasters to convert existing equipment and to operate digital terrestrial broadcast systems.

He maintained that government-owned stations may also require some external funding assistance, even for those that have been fully commercialized, adding that local producers may have to be supported to be able to generate programmes if broadcasters are to fill regulatory quotas for local content on the new platforms.

In his presentation, the United Kingdom-based Chief executive officer of Balancing Act, Mr. Russell Southwood, canvassed for a Digital Migration Task Force for Nigeria, if success is expected to be made of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) deadline for June 2015.

In an overview and strategies to accelerate the digital broadcast transition among the West African countries, Mr. Southwood noted though that Nigeria had recently announced a shift from the continental deadline earlier fixed for June 2012 to 2015, yet nothing seems to be on the ground.

He also said that there is no sleep lost in shifting the date by the country, after all, Australia has shifted its deadline to 2019, four years after the global deadline. Maintaining that most importantly is that implementation takes off as there is no switch anywhere to be turned to achieve the migration if not well streamlined.

He agreed that the Nigeria needs a task force on digital migration to make a success out of the initiative, stressing that Nigeria should move beyond the submission of the white paper by the President Advisory Committee (PAC) on Digital Broadcast Migration to the next level, which is actual implementation.

Whilst private and public players could and have started the digital transition process without the government or regulator as revealed by the studies, Mr. Southwood said, the scale of the task is so huge and demands the involvement of all of stakeholders in the process.

“This is best achieved by creating a Task Force or Committee to create an implementation plan and a timetable for the plan,” he advised, stressing that government needs to provide clear policy leadership but it must persuade all of the players of its policy objectives if the process is to start successfully.

He cited an example, saying that it needs at an early point to set a date for the switch-off for the analogue signal, from which all other parts of the timetable could be set, saying “Likewise, the regulator will need to give clear guidance on how it sees spectrum re-allocation happening.”

Southwood underscored the fact that this task force would contain representatives of all the relevant government bodies, key broadcasters and ideally, some representation from consumer groups representing end-users.

“A smaller sub-group might be set up that is directly involved in the transition implementation,” he suggested.

He said that the task force has three key roles to play including ironing out the details of the agreed government policy, particularly who will do what; secondly, it will get all the relevant parties to formally commit themselves to the timetable agreed; and thirdly, it will be the focus for the promotion of the process to the public.

The Task Force he maintained would be better at the first two roles and have largely ignored the third, underlining the fact that it is this role – public awareness; that is vital in persuading the public to make the transition.

“Relatively simple practical things – like no-cost advertising by all broadcasters – form a vital cornerstone of raising awareness of the process and ensuring that people make the switch,” he said, noting that a total of 14 countries out of the 54 countries on the continent have commenced implementation of the strategies for digital migration, including Nigeria, thus on the right lane, even as about 33 countries, were yet to start any known form of actions on digital migration.

Southwood said that digital migration has the capacity to free up spectrum for data services, pointing out that while Nigeria, Morocco, Mauritius, Kenya have launched digital migration publicly, the likes of Tunisia, South Africa have gone into the pilot projects, just as Uganda and Guinea have their plans delayed but deliberating on the standards to be engaged.

In the case of Nigeria, Southwood cited the instance of commencing digital migration with the debut of StarTimes in collaboration with the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) since last year, which is a good omen for the country on digital migration strategy.

This collaboration, he said, claims over 400,000 subscriptions with Set Top boxes sold 30,000 monthly, noting that all the Francophones within the West Africa region are trying to adopt a particular process.

The current rave of digital migration on the continent of Africa would free-up spectrum for mobile operators, as more efficient management of spectrum, could open up the businesses in this aspect, especially in using fund realized from spectrum sells to deploy digital migration equipment where needed. Arguing that standard to be adopted across African continent for digital migration is likely to be the same since the continent has relatively the same developmental challenges.

For him, the benefits of digitisation includes that good picture quality is very good, but all the equipment must be digital. Pointing out that economical cost of digitisation, would entail that operators share transmission signal such as mast and other equipment needed for delivery terrestrial service, government subsidy may encourage financing of more channels, which would also reduce the cost of migration.

Further he said that element of strategies to be involved in digital migration include network platform, decode also known as set-top boxes (STB), thereby increasing access to digital equipment such as radio and television through better signal.

Equally speaking on ‘Challenges of Reporting on Digital Broadcast Migration’ media practitioner, Mazi Remmy Nweke, recommended a well-set out and thought out structure of media engagement via professionals either by engaging in-house staff versed on media relation or engaging private sector based professional entities by the NBC.

According to him, NBC should conduct training sessions for media practitioners in the country, especially for those on the line of reporting or covering the digitisation and broadcasting in Nigeria as well as ensuring that people in government are held accountable to the public through the media, especially now that the Information Act has been signed into law.

A mailing list of those interested in covering the digitisation migration, he said, should be created so as to regularly share information, while face-to-face is also encouraged by inviting government officials to face the media for interactions, even if it’s quarterly.

“There should be a convergence of relevant government ministries, departments and agencies, especially those regulating to make things easier and decision even channelled to the media better engaged.

He advised reporters interested in covering this issue on digital migration to become digitally empowered as having a mobile phone is not a holistic digital empowerment, in addition for reporters to form a common front to this effect to create relevant awareness and public engagement to drive the message of digital migration home across the country, even as urging NBC to beef-up its public relations, especially with the media.

Conclusion:
Above, NBC needs to wake up and face the concept of digital migration with two hands, because of date, there is no sign of where the white paper on the presidential committee on digital migration, whether it has been dumped or swept under the carpet, only time would time, as the two-day workshop ended without any official of NBC in attendance, even when it was held in Abuja.

Remmy Nweke
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