For more than a decade digital broadcasting has been touted to revolutionise the African audiovisual and telecoms landscape. But the pace of this revolution has been so sluggish many have forgotten the promise of this new technology.
At the recent 7th African Digital TV Development Seminar held in Beijing, 30 ministers of information and communication from African countries, including Nigeria, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Liberia, Malawi, Zambia and Ethiopia, made a commitment to push for Africa’s TV industry’s digital migration.
A script, repeated many times before.
The International Telecommunications Union set an ambitious goal for all of Africa’s broadcast companies to convert to digital terrestrial television by 2015. Only three countries, namely, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, made the switch-over timeously but still endure many technical headaches. To date only five of the 54 countries achieved the upgrade.
The ITU promises digital TV broadcasting will level the playing fields through equitable access to information, connecting under-served and remote communities, and closing the digital divide.
Technologically, it offers many advantages over analogue systems for end-users, operators and regulators.
Apart from increasing the number of programmes, it provides services, such as interactive TV, electronic programme guides and mobile TV as well as far superior image and sound. Digital TV decreases overall costs of transmission. It also frees the spectrum used for TV for other services, such as much-needed wireless broadband.
China completed its digital switchover last year.
An enormous undertaking, considering the country’s size. The country first began the crossover from analogue to digital with pilot projects in 2003.
By 2006 television administrators prepared for the rapid digital expansion in urban China. The migration was spurred on by the country’s staging of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. A time frame to switch China’s poorer western cities to digital was set for 2010.
All analogue networks were marked to become defunct, and replaced by next-generation digital networks, in 2015. The Chinese missed the deadline by a year. Forgivable, considering the scale of this task.
Michael Starks, editor of International Journal of Digital Television, penned an article on China’s switch-over. He noted the country was not among the first to complete digital television switch-over but it was certainly the biggest.
“It faced formidable challenges. This included selecting technical standards; developing new digital content to attract consumers; regulating relationships between platforms; ensuring collaboration between industry players; and providing a mix of commercial and public investment.”
Stark said, in three respects, China’s situation and experience was unique because of the structure of its broadcasting sector, the approach to digital terrestrial television and the role of state funding.
Having undertaken this prodigious task, China has offered its assistance to Africa. Costs have been one of the key constraints to African countries achieving digital migration. Many, including the largest, television markets on the continent are lagging behind.
China-based technology provider and network operator StarTimes Group has signed contracts to undertake the costly switch-over, on the continent, through loans from the Chinese government.
The company already has offices in 30 African countries and 10 million viewers subscribe to its pay stations. Since Africa is projected to be one of the world’s fastest-growing television markets over the next decade this is a wily move on the part of the Chinese. Some estimates put the number of households with televisions in Africa at 100 million.
Tong Gang, deputy minister of China State Administration of Press Publication, Radio, Film and Television, told the digital seminar: “The co-operation between Chinese and African media is in accordance with the Chinese advocacy of One Belt and One Road.
“China is willing to deeper co-operation in media development, promoting the digital migration in Africa.”
Recently South Africa’s television technocrats broached the subject of the great digital crossover once again.
Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo said last week her department would speed up South Africa’s digital migration process, and it would be completed before December next year.
Fingers crossed, here’s hoping this is not more rhetoric and that her promises finally lead South Africa to this much anticipated digital promised land.
Peters is the live editor of Weekend Argus. She is on a 10-month scholarship with the China Africa Press Centre. Instagram: mels_chinese_takeout