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Government set for April 29 second phase of digital transition

[files] Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed. Photos/FMICNIGERIA

One thousand, one hundred and sixty-one (1161) days after the last launch of Digital Switch Over (DSO) in Osogbo, Osun State, on April 30, 2018, the government is set to begin another phase of transition from April 29, 2021. Between the first launch in Jos, the government took over 665 days to go to five states and Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.

Though the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) says the Digital Switch Over (DSO) project will be completed by the middle of 2022 when the country will fully transit from analog to digital terrestrial broadcasting, many are still uncomfortable with the pronouncement. Most noticeable fear of experts is the commission’s capacity to actualise the 2022 deadline it has set.

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The NBC recently faulted the belief in certain quarters that the country missed two deadlines – June 2015 and July 2020 – owing to poor conception, mismanagement, corruption, and bad leadership.

But the Acting Director-General of the Commission, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba, explained that transiting from analogue to digital broadcasting all over the world is a highly demanding endeavour.

“No country has set a date and actualised it on the first set date. In the UK, they had to revise their entire transition strategy after they had pumped in millions of Pound Sterling. Also, in the USA, they had to reset the date over and over before they eventually transited,” he said.

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“Only a few countries have been able to complete the process in Africa and when you look at their sizes, they are like one-sixth of our territorial space and populations.”

Why Digitisation
RESEARCHES indicate that there will be better and more spectrum availability if broadcasters vacate from the analogue to digital mode of transmission.

In addition, migrating from analogue to digital mode will lead to increase in frequencies, lower broadcasting cost and improve viewing quality for consumers.

Furthermore, the analogue switch-off will free up spectrum for more telecommunications services. “Using the TV white space will be an important policy for the government. We know the telecoms companies are eager to have these spaces,” Idachaba had said.

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Indeed, 16 digital channels can use the same space as a single analogue channel, and the government is expecting to free up the spectrum with a value of approximately $1bn for the use of telecommunications companies.

The revenue from this process will partly be used to install transmission infrastructure and subsidise the digital boxes. The remaining revenue is expected to be used for budgetary shortfalls. However, given the economic difficulties facing the country, the current formula could be altered.

“How much the government can subsidise in a constrained economy is something that we’re thinking about,” Idachaba added.

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The NBC boss, however, noted that the switch-off of the analogue signal would occur gradually as digitisation begins to cover more areas of the country. The complete shut-off will take place when 96 to 98 per cent of the population have migrated to digital.

The digital switch-over process has the potential to bring a raft of benefits to the country. For instance, box manufacturing – which is being completed domestically – will serve as a notable generator of employment.

Nevertheless, the switch to digital is likely to provide a great opportunity for domestic content providers. NBC has announced that the N1000 ($3.53) licensing fee will be used to help create a Digital Access Fund, which will help finance and fund content developers across the country. As a result, the switchover should provide a significant boost to the country’s television and entertainment industry, creating additional venues and funds for content, while also offering more choice to consumers.

The minister, who stated this recently, said when the process is completed and there is Analogue Switch Off (ASO), the spectrum band to be vacated by broadcasters would be ceded to the telecom regulatory agency for sale and use in the mobile broadband industries.

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How Prepared Is Government For The Second Phase?
TO show the government’s new commitment towards ending the staggered and endless process, on February 23, 2021, Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, unveiled a 13-member Ministerial Task Force to take charge of the DSO process, which, for years, has proceeded in staccato fashion and left the country trailing many others, including in Africa.

Members of the task force, chaired by Mohammed, include Joe Mutah of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture (Secretary), Dr. Armstrong Idachaba, acting Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC); Olusegun Yakubu of Pinnacle Communications and Toyin Zubair, promoter of the defunct HiTV and now of Inview.

Earlier, Alhaji Mohammed had announced that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved outstanding payments to key DSO stakeholders, a development, he said would remove all the hindrances to the entire process in the past three years.

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The minister also visited the governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to express the government’s preparedness for the Lagos launch.

On April 12, 2021, the minister had an engagement with members of Ministerial Task Force on the Digital Switch Over (DSO) and stakeholders, where he reiterated the ministry’s commitment, saying, the “DSO as one of its priority projects, because of its potential to create jobs, bring governance closer to the people through better access to information, thus, deepening democracy, bring the Internet to millions of homes and also provide quality programming, especially those produced locally, to Nigeria’s estimated 24 million television households, with high fidelity pictures and sound.”

Alhaji Mohammed said, “Ahead of the impending massive rollout, we have taken some steps to create the enabling environment for the DSO to succeed, for local content to thrive, for indigenous producers to be more engaged and for the local advertising market to grow. Some of these measures have generated a lot of controversies and triggered pushback from some quarters, but we remain undaunted in implementing them for the benefit of our people.”

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The minister had also charged the Ministerial Task Force on DSO to ensure that the project offers very rich content for Nigerian television viewers.

He stated that the Ministerial Task Force on DSO must look to include improved Nigerian content in the new Digital Switchover for Nigerian television viewers, saying the success of the project depends on the content it offers.

“Let me say, straight away, that the success of this project is hinged on content. If the content is right, the 24 million TV households in the country will embrace it. If the content is wrong, they will not.

“Even the purchase of the Set-Top Boxes (STBs) by Nigerians will depend on the richness of the content offered. Before now, we either gave out the boxes free or at subsidized rates. But now that the project is being commercially driven, the sale of STBs will depend on the content,” Mohammed said.

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The minister added that rich content in sports, entertainment, children’s programmes as well as local and international news were necessary to attract subscribers, with the added advantage of non-payment for a subscription.

According to the NBC boss, “we are going to Lagos very soon and before the third quarter of this year, we would have covered, at least, five more states.

“The signal distributors are ready and, as we speak, they are setting up their infrastructure in Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Kano, preparatory to the rollout.

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“The box manufacturers are also working to ensure the availability of boxes needed.

“There is a big ambition to achieve this national assignment and the good news is that all the component players within the ecology are ready to go.

“By the plans we have, by the middle of 2022, we would have completed the switch over in Nigeria,” Idachaba said.

Challenge Ahead
BUT many have argued that there is no sustainable Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) coverage even in Plateau, Enugu, Osun, Kwara, and Kaduna states as well as the Federal Capital Territory, which were pilot states.

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This implies inhabitants outside state capitals are excluded and shows that the broadcast signal carriers selected for the DSO have the inadequate technical and financial capacity for effective DTT coverage, the first step in the DSO.

They said the government is using a similar model to the UK’s Freeview system, whereby viewers will be able to buy a digital box at a subsidised rate of N1500 ($5.30) and access content through the payment of an N1000 ($3.53) annual licence fee. The viewer will then be able to access 30 channels of free content through the digital box.

The minister’s projections on STBs, which convert analogue signals to digital, ignore the fact that the country, for strange reasons, chose a process that builds conditional access (CA) on top of the STBs instead of a standard affordable STB process.

This means that the STBs process adopted for Nigeria’s DSO will be out of the financial reach of most Nigerians.

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The standard STBs for DSO is supposed to receive free-to-air signal and be affordable. Those with conditional access built onto them are similar to pay television STBs and are much pricier. Inview, the company providing the TV system/ conditional access, has already been paid N1billion for running the TV system only in Abuja and Jos.

The cancellation of subsidy for STBs, forced on the government by the inclement economic climate, is certain to ensure that the prices of the boxes will stretch users to breaking point. Prior to the devaluation of the naira, for instance, the recommended price for STB ranged between N20,000 and N30,000. The boxes used in the rollout at pilot locations were all imported, with the Federal Government giving the alleged STB manufacturers guarantees to fund the importation to the tune of a N5billion.

According to experts, there are only three companies claiming to have STB assembly lines in the country and not a single one is manufacturing. How the few companies, even operating at full capacity, can assemble 24 million STBs over five years is something that has eluded experts, who reckon that it will take a minimum of five years to meet the demand of 24million users- if all the companies function at full capacity. Importantly, not one of those claiming to have assembly/manufacturing capacities is in operation, meaning that they are engaged in no economic activities and employ nobody, thereby bilking the country through government contracts.

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