What's the “digital dividend”? West African digital broadcast migration

By Russell Southwood
Publisher: APC     JOHANNESBURG, 22 November 2010

African countries are committed to migrating to digital broadcasting by June 2015. This will be a costly process both for government and citizens and it is currently unclear who will benefit from it or where the resources needed to make the transition will come from.

Only a minority of African countries have started the policy work needed to create the transition and most of the discussion is focused on technical questions.

Arguably, it is one of the most fundamental changes in African broadcasting for over a decade and raises wider questions about how the “public interest” is expressed in broadcasting and its relationship with interactive, converged media. With certain exceptions, African public broadcasting has tended to express the needs and interests of the ruling party rather than a country’s citizens.

A new initiative from the Association for Progressive Communications and Balancing Act aims to help policy-makers and others make the best decisions.

Issues raised by the transition

The proponents of the transition have argued that it will yield up a “digital dividend” and that its benefits will include: more television channels; improved signal; potentially increased coverage; and the freeing up of scarce spectrum. However, these benefits come at a cost and it includes subsidising those who are unable to afford the new digital equipment and finding the resources to create programming for new channels.

In terms of subsidy, the scale of the issue can be judged from two very different statistics. In South Africa the Government has announced that it will spend US$300 million to provide a 70% subsidy to five million households. In Kenya 46% of televisions owned are still black and white.

Given the undoubtedly substantial costs involved in this transition, how can Africa do two key things?

Firstly, lower the costs of the transition.

And secondly, maximise the benefits it gains in terms of greater access to more diverse content and discussion?

Whilst the transition from analogue to digital will eventually be universal, it will nonetheless be achieved at different rates by countries within regions and between regions. For example only a few countries worldwide are anywhere near completing the switchover to digital broadcast television (excluding satellite delivery) and many countries (globally) are only in the early stages of the transition. However, in the majority of African countries, the switch over to digital by 2015 cannot be considered a realistic target. At present only South Africa has switched on a digital signal and other African countries that have done any substantial work on the issue are still very much in the minority.

Given the economic and social consequences of migration and the low response of African countries to the process – be this as a result of lack of awareness, limited resources and/or cost implications – it is important that approaches and progress towards digitalization be studied and reported on a country-by-country basis.

It is important to create research and policy tools that allowed countries to address issues relating to things like public interest media, the cost of subsidy and the resources required to programme additional channels, and that´s what APC and Balancing Act aim to do.

“A study of this kind will help countries in analysing and understanding the full socio-economic implications and opportunities of digital migration,” says Balancing Act’s Russell Southwood. More importantly, they could act as the trigger point for a policy discussion about wide range of public interest media and access issues, allowing a range of different solutions to be presented.

Costs and benefits of the transition

The research study will develop a set of policy and research tools that allow those involved in the discussions to understand both the costs and potential benefits of the transition.

On the cost side, it will look at: the likely costs of subsidising digital equipment for those unable to afford it; the costs of providing different types of equipment and how it might be lowered; the cost to broadcasters of making the transition both at a production and transmission level; the costs associated with additional programming; and the costs of extending to additional transmission areas.

On the benefits side, it will look at: the likely income to be raised from freeing up spectrum and where it might go; how increased programming output can meet a wider range of needs and help encourage local programming; the potential for public interest or community channels or slots; the financial benefits to be gained by having one or more signal carriers; and increasing the ability of broadcasters to engage with their different audiences.

The research study will raise and outline the range of issues below that can best be described as the public interest opportunity.

Identifying the “Public Interest” opportunity

Although the transition offers the possibility of more broadcast channels, the assumption thus far has been that these channels will simply be divided up amongst existing broadcasters. In some countries existing broadcasters (both public and private) already struggle to fill the channels they have: often airtime is simply sold off to those who can afford to pay. In financial terms, government-run broadcasters are particularly vulnerable as most do not have the resources required to fulfil their “public interest” mandate and rely heavily on advertising in what are increasingly competitive markets.

It is currently assumed by policy-makers that the government-run broadcaster is responsible for meeting any “public interest” mandate but existing practice shows that the evidence does not necessarily bear this out. Therefore it would be helpful to open a debate about how best the public interest might be met and whether there are new models that would allow for more plural outcomes in terms of both content and governance.

Potential options for discussion might include among other things: revitalising the public interest mandate of existing Government-run broadcasters; opening up broadcast television more widely for community use; and privately run regional stations with clear public purpose license targets.

Increased access and coverage

The transition to digital broadcast transmission offers the opportunity to separate transmission from content production. Traditionally, broadcasters have been vertically integrated organisations combining both production and distribution. In some countries, the government-run broadcaster has controlled the transmission network and sold access to it as a service. In other countries, privately owned broadcasters have built their own networks and the “what the market can bear” approach has tended to justify a focus solely on the more populated areas. Therefore few privately owned African broadcasters can lay claim to being national stations.

In the few African countries that have done detailed policy work on the digital transition (for example, Kenya and Tanzania), they have decided to separate out the “signal carrier” function. This is either done on the basis that there is a single, independent signal carrier (government or privately-run) or there are two or more competitive carriers. But however it is done, there need to be clear rules governing access to the MUX (the transmission device) that carries multiple signals from different broadcasters to a household.

This creates the opportunity for broadcasters (both public and private) to share transmission infrastructure and this sharing will allow an extension of all broadcasters’ coverage areas. Those previously marginalised in terms of access to television will be able for the first time to receive a signal. However, there are broader issues of electricity transmission that will also have to be addressed.

At the set-top box and television level, the study will look at which channels other carriers are obliged to carry and how the costs of these obligations will be met. The use of “conditional access” also highlights concerns about the ability of government and broadcasters being able to “shut people out” by cutting their signal.

Diversity of content

The digital transition offers a key moment to address the generation of local African content, both within particular countries and across the continent. It offers the opportunity to review the effectiveness of local production quotas and of Government schemes that support local production.

Over 2,000 languages are spoken in Africa and many of them represent different cultures within countries. Whilst the growing number of African “vernacular” radio stations has begun to cater for some of this diversity, African television broadcasting has not always been capable of providing the same degree of language and cultural diversity.

Although there are some notable exceptions, as much as 80-90% of content on African television stations comes from US, European and Latin American international content providers. These international content providers produce programmes for their own markets but offset the costs through selling global rights. However not surprisingly, locally generated programmes across the globe are nearly always more widely watched than international ones.

Nollywood has demonstrated that fiction programmes from one African country can be watched widely by people in other countries. Fiction output of this kind shapes how Africans see themselves. Several other African countries have also started to produce programmes that are more widely seen outside of where they were made.

The impact of convergence

Broadcasting and telecommunications are in many African countries treated as separate, vertical markets. Digital convergence means that telecoms operators have become involved in broadcasting and broadcasting companies are looking at how they might deliver Internet and voice services. The continent’s first real Triple Play offer (with the customer receiving television, voice and Internet) has been launched in Kenya by Wananchi. But often the two sectors are separately regulated or spectrum is regulated by the telecoms regulator and other broadcasting issues by a separate body. Integrated regulators dealing with both broadcasting and telecommunications are in the minority.

Many telecoms regulators will be able to generate a new stream of income from the sale of spectrum released once the digital transition is complete. There remain considerable arguments over whether this released spectrum should remain with the broadcasters or be released for telecoms use. But whatever happens, there will be a new stream of income but where will it go?

Elsewhere in the world, public broadcasters are increasingly using their funding to create complementary Internet platforms that make use of the more interactive forms of content creation (for example, blogs and citizen journalism). The equivalent development in Africa has been the much narrower use of SMS for programme voting and the equivalent of letters. However, as the Internet grows in Africa, both public and private broadcasters will begin to develop a more interactive approach to broadcasting and its relationship to audiences. Should this interactive approach to media be encouraged by public funding?

As mentioned earlier, it is currently assumed by policy-makers that the government-run broadcaster is responsible for meeting any “public interest” mandate but existing practice shows that the evidence does not necessarily bear this out. A study and discussion around digital migration is important because it creates opportunities to deliver real benefits to the public be these through:

  • the balancing (out) of the costs and benefits of the transition, and thereby contributing to increasing the range and choice of service providers for the public
  • delivering on increased access and coverage, and thereby increasing the scale and scope of public-orientated services that can be delivered (e-government, e-health, e-education etc.)
  • increasing the diversity of content available to the public, including the opportunity to increase participation of the public through community channels etc.

“Such benefits are important to the creation of and/or strengthening of open societies,” concludes APC’s executive director, Anriette Esterhuysen.

The project is supported by the Open Society Institute.

Photo by Andy Rennie. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0.

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