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Of West Africa’s sixteen countries, only a handful have committed in earnest to the move to digital broadcasting – though all African states have signed up to undertake the migration by June 2015.

The costly process has deterred some countries. However there are early adaptors like Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria who are at a pre-public launch phase. And another three —Benin, Mali and Niger— are on their way to creating Task Forces to oversee the transition. But the reality is that almost half of West African states are yet to even begin the policy work needed to start the transition process.

New research by Russell Southwood out earlier this year for APC and Balancing Act as part of our joint West African Digital Migration initiative provides an overview of the current state of the transition in each country as well as recommendations for those countries still to start the transition process.

How can everyone afford a new TV?

“Policy makers and regulators find it hard to believe that a process which involves everyone buying a new TV set top-box is feasible in the African context,” explains Southwood.

The purchase of a new technology may seem like too heavy a financial burden to impose, however studies on Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal show that a tax reduction on new TVs made them almost as affordable as a low-end phone says Southwood’s report, with such decisions requiring a prioritised directive from the Ministry of Telecommunications.

But the biggest obstacle is getting started

The process requires new policy work to be carried out and “often ministries are hard-pushed to find these additional resources to address this task,” comments Southwood. However for most though, it is a case of putting off to tomorrow the work that could be done today, he says.

Southwood urges countries not to leave the transition to the last minute. “In Europe, this process took anywhere from three to fourteen years,” he reports. “Whether private industry is involved or not, the government or regulator must start the process by generating a policy paper addressing key public interest issues. And the paper has to go for consultation – especially with the broadcast industry that will be most affected by the decisions being taken.”

The first step most countries are taking is to set up a committee or task force which includes a representative from each stakeholder group. Task forces can help iron out details of the government policy including implementation, obtain formal commitment from the relevant parties, agree on a timetable for the transition and it will be the focus for the promotion of the process to the public.

Governments should provide clear policy leadership and other stakeholders help facilitate the process. For example, the government can set a precise date for the switch-off of analogue, and a regulator can give guidance on how it sees spectrum allocation happening.

Southwood observes that best practices suggest a direct market roll-out where government takes various decisions that give certainty to the market and offers incentives to speed up the process – such as the choice of technical standards. The government also has the ability to impose a changeover by law or regulation, and so working with all stake holders will ensure the success of the process.

After this, the process is ready for trials to ensure the new digital signals work, a public launch and sales of new digital TVs to the public. But this is not the end – government, regulators and broadcasters will need to run public-awareness campaigns to encourage take-up by the general public, which can also take time.

Why bother migrating to digital broadcasting?

With the costs and so much work involved, governments, regulators and broadcasters of course ask “what’s in it for the nation?”

In order for the transition process to be successful, people need to understand why it is important. Southwood goes into more detail in his paper but in a nutshell…

Increased TV coverage area

In many African countries, television is largely an urban phenomenon. Private broadcasters tend to stick to urban areas because they contain the audiences that advertisers are interested in and only public broadcasters tend to reach rural communities.

Digital broadcasting would allow for governments and regulators to make television a universally accessible goal (for example if television currently reaches 55% of people, a new goal might be to reach 70% within five years, facilitated by policy). This could be done through a single independent carrier shared by all broadcasters, or several independent signal carriers offering infrastructure for hire, or even several consortia of broadcasters sharing different signal carriers.

As Southwood explains, “in each instance, the broadcasters stand to benefit from having an enlarged signal coverage as they will reach a greater number of people, which is especially attractive to food and beverage advertisers.”

Greater diversity of content

The new and additional channels available on digital television make room for more material in a wider range of languages, more educational channels and high definition channels. “Users will be attracted by a greater diversity of content, both from existing broadcasters and new entrants,” says Southwood.

Increased number of players

Southwood recommends that the additional channels be offered to the public in a fair and transparent way. As with spectrum allocation (link) channels are allocated space – if broadcasters do not make use of the channels within a certain amount of time, they should forfeit their right to use them and they should be made available to broadcasters with programming to offer.

Another incentive includes the re-allocation of spectrum from broadcasting to telecoms allowing for affordable internet and mobile services offered through cable carriers.

More channels = more income

Whether through advertising, pay TV, subscription income, license income or state subsidy, more channels should mean more income for governments. Income must match expenditure for new channels and private broadcasters are best equipped to manage this.

Media as a job and wealth creator

With the additional demand for TV programming, governments and regulators can pursue economic objectives by encouraging the growth of a local production sector. This can be easily done by creating some form of local production quota as a transnational measure (eg that only local programming is broadcast between 7pm and 11pm or that 40% of programming has to be local.

Local film agencies could receive government-endorsed funding – as happens currently in Kenya, Morocco and South Africa). Governments can also help local film production by discouraging individual piracy and pirate broadcasters.

This article was adapted from the report by Russell Southwood “Digital broadcast migration in West Africa: An overview and strategies to accelerate the transition” written for the APC. The research is published in English and French.

Read more articles, summaries and reports about digital broadcast migration in West Africa by APC.