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Nigeria’s bumpy road to digital switch over

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Nigeria’s bumpy road to digital switch over

Despite starting the process 11 years ago, Nigeria is still among the few African countries yet to completely switch over to digital broadcasting, even three years after the internationally approved deadline. But while the switching process is still bedevilled with technical hiccups, funding challenge and low awareness, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) believes everything is on course. SAMSON AKINTARO reports

 

After missing three deadlines, two self-imposed and one sanctioned by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Nigeria’s move to switch from analogue to digital broadcasting seems to have become an unending journey. While there is no more deadline—not that it is important anyway, given that previous deadlines have had no impact—the country continues to move at a pace that may leave it behind every other countries of the world. In her over a decade efforts, the country has been able to switch over to digital broadcasting only in six states and the federal capital territory, Abuja, thus casting serious doubt over NBC’s capability of achieving nationwide switchover even in the next one decade.

 

But the Commission in a recent chat with the media has said the coast is now clear for the country to move at fast pace. According to NBC’s head of the Directorate of Broadcast Monitoring, Dr Armstrong Idachaba, the country has now crossed the most difficult line. “Setting up the structure of a project like this is the most critical part; this is in terms of distributing transmission infrastructure. Even when you have put in place the transmission infrastructure, what channels would you put to be viewed? Those issues have however, been largely addressed. Now, with the two signal distributors on ground, we have rolled out nationally. Initially, we had problem with the Set-Top boxes, which were being imported but our idea now is that they have to be produced in the country. To that extent, we licenced some Nigerian companies to do that and they have started rolling them out” he said.

 

In the beginning

At the conclusion of 2006 ITU’s Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06) in Geneva, Nigeria, alongside 119 other countries signed a treaty agreement heralding the development of ‘all-digital’ terrestrial broadcast services for sound and television. In the treaty, transition day for all members was fixed for June 2015. Incidentally, Nigeria started preparations for this journey early enough. In 2007, while appreciating the vital need to keep up with the rest of the world in this ITU-led global digitisation movement, the Nigerian government had approved June 17, 2012 as Nigeria’s transition date, three years ahead of the ITU mandate. The justification then, according to the NBC, was to use the three years (June 17, 2012 to June 17, 2015) to address whatever hiccups arising from the switch-over and perfect the mechanism before the final date. But that was where it ended, as the plans could not materialise due to what industry analysts described as lack of political will on the part of the government.

 

By October 13, 2008, the late President UmaruYar’Adua, inaugurated the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on Transition from Analogue to Digital Broadcasting in Nigeria. The panel presented its report on Monday, June 29, 2009. However, no follow-up step was taken until April 4, 2012 when the Federal Executive Council released a white Paper on the report. Eventually, with the release of a government White Paper on the digitisation, the government in December 2012 inaugurated a 14-man transition Committee called DigiTeam Nigeria, with Engr. Edward Amana as chairman. The new team led by Amana, set a fresh date of January 1, 2015 as the switch-off date from analogue broadcasting, with plans to conclude the digital switchover in Nigeria before the June 17, 2015.

 

NBC had drawn a phased rollout plan, beginning with the pilot city switchover in Jos, and its plan was to complete other phases on or before January 1, 2015. The commission was able to ride on the backbone of NTA StarTimes to accomplish the Jos pilot city switchover, having designated NTA as the national digital signal carrier for the country. Unfortunately, all these efforts and plans could not take the country to a point where it could be counted among the few African countries that met the digital switch deadline as at June 17 2015. Having failed for the second time, the NBC fixed another deadline of June 2017, which again was missed.

 

 

NBC explains failure

 

With the third deadline missed, the NBC could not but offer some explanations to worrying stakeholders. Speaking at a forum in Lagos, the Director-General of NBC, Is’haq Modibbo Kawu had confessed that the DSO process remains a huge financial, technical and logistical challenge, stressing that switching on a huge country such as Nigeria, requires tremendous financial commitment. He explained that upon his assumption of office in May 2016, he discovered that the process at the beginning was dogged by a host of controversies.

 

“First, the Second National Signal Distributor, Pinnacle Communications Limited had been in dispute with the NBC,” he said. “They were in court, because of a host of grievances arising from the way that the contract with them had been handled by the NBC. Pinnacle Communications Limited had been the single biggest contributor to the DSO process, so it became imperative that we did everything to get them out of court, to return them to the DSO process. After several meetings, we reached an agreement, and Pinnacle Communications accepted to drop their litigation against the NBC. They returned to the process; were appointed as signal distributors for the Abuja DSO,” he stated.

 

According to him, Set-Top-Box (STB) manufacturers had committed resources to the importation of 850, 000 STBs from China, but because the EFCC had seized funds from the NBC, under the past regime at the commission, it could not meet the commitment, which totaled the sum of $26 million. Kawu, who was silent about how much and time it will require Nigeria to fully transit from analogue to digital transmission, explained that the commission hoped to have switched over by December 2017 in 12 states, but that still did not happen as the NBC was only able to add Kwara and Kaduna to Plateau and Abuja in 2017 and only this February it was able to switch over in Enugu State, making it just four states and FCT so far.

 

 

Long wait for digital dividends

 

While the country may not have issue of signal interference yet after the failure to switch over even three years after the ITU deadline as neighbouring countries are also yet to switch over completely, Nigeria is currently missing the huge economic benefits that should have accrued from digital dividends. Digital dividend spectrum is released when television broadcasters switch from analogue platforms to digital only platforms; part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has been used for broadcasting will be freed up because digital TV needs fewer spectrums than analogue television.

 

With serious attention on broadband as a tool for economic development, the telecom regulator, NCC has been banking on the release of spectrum currently being used by broadcasting stations to drive broadband penetration post digital migration deadline.

 

Speaking on the expected digital dividends, Mr Segun Ogunsanya, CEO, Airtel Nigeria said currently, Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication operators have only 15MHz assignment in 1800MHzi band, which is paired with 5MHz on the 900MHz.

 

“With the 700MHz spectrum allocation, GSM operators can significantly increase their capacity, improve quality, and also reduce capital expenditure, and the savings from operating costs will translate to affordable telecommunications services,” he said. “There should be effective coordination between the NCC, NBC and National Frequency Management Council (NFMC) to ensure that the 700MHz spectrum band is cleared and released for telecoms services as recommended by the ITU.”

 

He pointing out that the release of more spectrum can potentially impact positively on Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and lead to creation of more jobs.

 

Also speaking on the importance of the digital dividends, a former President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. LanreAjayi, said releasing the spectrum bands to investors that will roll-out service on them will add a new fillip to the industry, especially now that the next revenue frontier of the industry has shifted from voice to data. He said: “It will be an advantage for the country if these spectrum bands are released by the appropriate authority for NCC to allocate to would-be applicants.”

 

Last line

While funding and technical issues are being fingered for the slow-paced digital switch over move, stakeholders have advised NBC to do more in raising awareness about the switch, noting that majority of Nigerians are still oblivious of the move and its implications on them. They also urged the Federal Government to give the Commission necessary backing, especially in the area of funding, to ensure the DSO is achieved nationwide.

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