The digital switchover stalls: switching to digital TV could free up radio spectrum for mobile broadband, but many African countries will miss a June deadline.

Author:Jackson, Tom

In June 2006, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, met in Geneva and signed a treaty agreement saying that all broadcasting would be digital by 17th June 2015. At the time, the ITU called it "a major landmark towards establishing a more equitable, just and people-centred Information Society."

The logic behind the switchover is that moving onto digital TV brings better-quality viewing, allows more channels on the same networks, and frees up radio spectrum, which can be used to roll out broadband services to underserved areas.

"The digital switchover will leapfrog existing technologies to connect the unconnected in underserved and remote communities and close the digital divide," ITU said at the time.

However, nine years on, with just months left before the deadline, Africa lags the rest of the world in its migration from analogue to digital. Several countries have been given extensions; South Africa doubts that it will be able to make it even two years after the deadline, while Kenya's migration is mired in court action. Those that have achieved the deadline have done so by effectively shutting off service to people without decoders.

"I think that many African countries have not seen the process as important and as a result, have tended to view the deadline as the start of the process," says Russell Southwood, chief executive officer (CEO) of research firm Balancing Act and an expert on African broadcasting.

"But besides a rather slow approach to the issue, the bigger problem is: where does a cash-strapped African government find the money for building out the new transmission infrastructure?"

The cost factor is a particular problem in smaller countries--Benin, for example, estimated in December it needed to find an additional $nom for infrastructure upgrades. Those financing problems should be less acute, however, in countries such as South Africa and Kenya.

It emerged in February that South Africa may have to wait until 2017 to complete the migration, as government departments and bodies rowed over who had ultimate responsibility for overseeing the process.

Kenya's digital migration saga has been in and out of court. Research reports found awareness of the migration amongst Kenyans was very low and uptake of the necessary set-top boxes even lower. It is now back in court, after the Communications Authority (CA) imposed a "hard shut-off" on the country, forcing media houses to switch off their analogue...

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