By APCNews Accra, 11 October 2011
In 2006, it was agreed by the International Telecoms Union that all countries should switch over from analogue to digital by 2015. In order to bring more awareness to the process and its fast-approaching deadline, APC and Balancing Act, in collaboration with the Open Society Initiative sponsored a digital migration workshop for WATRA members in Accra in June 2010.
Workshop attendees included regulators, civil society, non-government organisations, the press, the ministerial policy expert, broadcasters and telecoms operators, from all fifteen members of West African Telecommunications Assembly (WATRA) and Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS).
After examining the issues, benefits, challenges and experiences of some countries, the workshop participants suggested recommendations to be implemented by those leading the transition in their respective countries.
Separating content providers and signal broadcasters
In order to maximise the use of existing broadcasting infrastructure and promote content creation, both content providers (broadcasters) and signal distributors should be separate bodies, that function under separate policies and frameworks. It is the regulator’s responsibility to decide on licensing mechanisms.
Existing government-owned broadcast infrastructure should be used to form the backbone for new signal distributors. In doing so, new signal distributors will need to absorb costs and negotiate commercial terms for the transfer of ownership, though ownership should remain in the hands of the government.
Restructuring the broadcasting licensing framework
Due to the changes in infrastructure and processes during the transition, the licensing framework should be restructured as follows:
- Two separate licence categories: a broadcasting content licence with the authority to produce content, and a broadcasting signal distribution licence with the authority to provide network platform for all broadcasters, with a duration of five years;
- The duration for a broadcasting signal distribution licence, bearing in mind the heavy investment and highly capital intensive nature of such infrastructure projects, should be fifteen years;
- The broadcaster’s function should be separate from the signal distribution function; the latter should be provided by a separate company;
- All current licences should be converted to the new broadcasting content licence;
- Each of the new broadcast content licences should specify its coverage target within the following framework of content broadcasters: community, city, state, regional, and national.
What the broadcasting signal distributor should be responsible for
Given its critical role in the new transmission process, the new signal distributor should:
- Provide services to broadcasters on an equitable, reasonable, non preferential and non-discriminatory basis;
- Adhere to licence conditions as provided by the regulator;
- Provide quality delivery of broadcasting services;
- Provide national coverage whilst ensuring that content providers keeps to their assigned coverage areas;
- Inform the regulator on the use of frequency channels on a regular basis
- Take into account the different licensing categories and technical parameters when determining its tariffs.
Regulatory framework to guide licensing of Digital Terrestrial TV (DTT) Services
The transition to digital broadcast migration will require specific regulatory interventions that should be developed as concretely as possible. The regulator should study the trends before determining the nature of the regulatory intervention that will be required for the industry.
Countries should encourage a coordinated regional policy for the introduction of digital broadcasting. This should be addressed through ECOWAS and the African Union (AU). Regulators should also initiate a spectrum coordination meeting with the neighbouring countries.
Managing the digital dividend
The transition from analogue to digital broadcasting will free up a large amounts of spectrum. It is recommended that governments should revisit the assignments in the ITU GE-06 Plan (http://www.itu.int/ITU-R/terrestrial/broadcast/plans/ge06/index.html in order to manage the newly freed spectrum using a range of frequency planning tools and the latest propagation techniques.
The concept of convergence refers to separate technologies such as voice (and telephony features), data (and productivity applications) and video that now share resources and interact with each other. Governments should look to examine convergence-related issues and aim to take a final decision as soon as possible in the interest of the industry and the national economy.
In order to ensure compatibility, it is important to define the appropriate standards for digital broadcasting in the West African sub region. This will include identifying and analysing existing digital broadcasting standards available worldwide in order to help choose the most appropriate standards for each country.
Set top boxes
DVB-T2 has been recommended as a standard on the transmission network side. Therefore, set top boxes should comply with the DVB standards. The specification (e.g. free-to-air, conditional access, low-level entry, etc) needs to be determined as part of a broader policy discussion.
With a guaranteed market of over 90 million homes, it is estimated that over 200 million television sets will need set top boxes in West Africa. Governments should therefore provide appropriate incentives so as to attract potential manufacturers with a view to licensing a maximum of three manufacturers of set top boxes.
Such incentives could include:
- Tax holiday on manufacturing inputs;
- Zero import duty on manufacturing equipment;
- A government policy to protect the market through a moratorium on imports of similar equipment for a specified period of time;
- Adequate security needs to be assured;
- Provision of sufficient infrastructure, including electricity, water etc.
Local and regional content development
Reward programmes should spur those working in media and theatre arts, writers, and communications to produce materials that can be developed into content for the broadcast industry. Creative arts units/departments, especially in tertiary institutions, should be recognised as an important source of local content and appropriate funds should also be disbursed in order to further promote excellence in this field. Of course, the importance of intellectual property rights should not be overlooked, and should be enforced through copyright and other related laws.
The success of the transition programme will be determined largely by the extent to which the African consumer is well informed on the key issues of the programme. Consumers should also be made aware of the products they are purchasing through informative labels on the TV sets, such as e.g. “this unit will not be able to receive TV signals in respective countries without a Set Top Box after June 2012 (date to be adopted by each country)”.
Dealing with environmental issues
Switching to digital broadcasting will undoubtedly create unprecedented amounts of e-waste as older analogue models are disposed of for newer digital sets. Switzerland’s model of e-waste disposal is an excellent standard to follow, where all actors (manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers) must be licensed. The following is also recommended:
- An advance recycling fee should be charged at points of purchase of every electronic equipment, while disassembling centres are established;
- Adequate public awareness around the recycling centres should be ensured ;
- All importers of transmit and receive broadcast equipment should be licensed by the regulator as broadcast equipment dealers.
Funding the transition
The transition will require substantial funding for successful implementation. The telecom sector will benefit from the transition programme (spectrum dividend, provision of IP broadcasting [IPTV], Mobile TV services etc) and universal service funds can potentially provide seed money for the implementation of the transition programme in respective countries. Before the implementation process begins however, countries should determine switch-off dates and begin to build awareness among the public.
Photo by Fredrik Ruda. Used with permission.