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The transition from analogue to digital broadcasting in West Africa is without a doubt one of the biggest upheavals since television was first launched in Africa – but for most African nations, the benefits of following through with such a change remain unclear. In a continent with so many pressing economic demands, it is not surprising that many countries are slow to begin the process.

A new report by Russell Southwood for Balancing Act and APC, “Digital broadcast migration in the West Africa: Getting the most out of the transition” explores the direct challenges and benefits of the transition and why it is so important for the continent.

Short-term pain for long-term gain

So far, most countries have been slow to take on the digital transition and the process has been primarily considered as a costly technical issue. But the change brings numerous benefits that will lead to economic and social growth over the long term. While the benefits of the transition may not be as easily calculated as a technocal cost can, perhaps the most important benefit will be felt by Africans – more access to information.

The pain – costs and deterrents associated with the transition

There are two sets of direct costs associated with the transition: one by the broadcasters, and the other by the television users themselves.

Broadcasters pay the cost of production and equipment needed to operate digitally, whereas the users must cover the cost of television set-top boxes or a new television set.

Because Africa’s government broadcasters are primarily paid for by public funds (and advertising), governments are likely to fund a large part of the transitions. However research carried out by APC has shown with the African telecommunications reform, state-owned incumbents are not necessarily efficient in delivering national telecommunications infrastructure.

The risk is that the new infrastructure mirrors the existing coverage pattern – meaning that the government broadcaster will only have a slightly larger transmission coverage area nationally, and that the private sector will continue to focus on the urban areas.

Competitive signal carriers (rather than the single national carrier) could present an alternative to this, but this would imply that these areas already have access to electricity. Southwood suggests that “it may be worth considering making universal access to television and to electricity dual objectives of any policy for the digital transition.”

While the process will be costly for governments, the heaviest cost burden will be felt by consumers of television, who will need to purchase either a digital set top box or a digitally-enabled television. Since higher quality hardware comes at a higher price, those countries that have begun the migration process, have typically chosen the lower-cost top boxes, dropping the price from about $45–55 USD to about $30–35$ for users that cannot afford to finance the top boxes on their own.

The gain – the benefits of the transition

The switch-over to digital broadcasting bears many fruits such as increased spectrum, more television channels and thus diversity of content, as well as new and different business models.

Because digital signals use spectrum more efficiently, the transition will open up more spectrum and allow for more channels to be sent over the frequencies. This allows for greater content in local languages, making information available to a much broader audience. With 80% of African television content coming from the US, Europe or Latin America, additional channels can provide content in some of the 2000 + languages found in Africa.

The switch-over will also allow for greater control by the broadcasters, meaning that they can specify who receives their signals, combatting piracy.

Moreover, governments and their regulators will also be able to sell their newly-freed up spectrum for other uses, such as mobile telephony – creating new and innovative business models and opportunities. APC has been carrying out research into spectrum options.

While the transition brings about clear challenges and opportunities, other, more subtle challenges and benefits may also arise as a result of the transition. Universal access to television (rather than only radio and now internet), changing and improving government broadcasting and gearing it to public interest, changing the funding mechanisms to including income from advertising, increasing job skills in the television and film sector and encouraging interactivity between broadcasters and viewers.

African countries stand to gain from the transition provided those leading the transition are mindful of the process and create opportunities for growth (despite initial financial challenges).

The opportunity for new content can help foster national economic, social and political growth – the only challenge to this will be incentive to creating the local content, which can be worked around by setting quotas for local content and policies, as well as finding advertising agencies to cover the new costs. But African countries must first step up to the plate and move forward with the process.

This article was written as a part of APC’s project on Digital Migration in West Africa and was based on the report Digital broadcast migration in West Africa: Getting the most out of the transition by Russell Southwood which is available in English and French.

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