Jun 4,2013 / News / Legal Brief

In most African countries, free-to-air television broadcasting services are currently broadcast in analogue format.

Digital broadcasting is far more efficient, allows better picture and sound quality, has capability for enhanced applications (such as electronic programme guides) and ultimately has the potential to increase the amount and variety of television content and increase consumer choice, with many positive economic spin-offs.

THE DIGITAL MIGRATION PROCESS

Digital migration usually occurs in a phased transition process. For some time (usually a few years) after digital transmissions commence, existing television services are broadcast in both analogue and digital format. This period is known as the “dual illumination period”. Once a sufficient number of people have migrated to DTT, the analogue transmissions cease, and only the digital transmissions continue (so called “analogue switch-off”).

This yields the single biggest advantage of migrating to DTT in most countries, namely the so-called “digital dividend”. Because so many more channels can be transmitted per frequency in DTT, once analogue transmissions are switched off, a large amount of radio frequency spectrum will be released; which can then be used for new broadcasting and other communications services such as broadband.

SOUTHERN AFRICAN IMPLEMENTATION

Southern African countries have committed to completing the digital migration process by June 2015. If they have not done so by that date, they will not benefit from protection against signal interference.

International experience has shown that two of the key factors critical to the success of digital migration are (i) affordable set top boxes and (ii) consumer awareness.

This has been borne out by experience in Southern Africa.

In order to view digital television signals on an ordinary analogue television set, consumers will need a so-called “set top box”. The purpose of the set top box is to convert the DTT signal for reception on an ordinary analogue television set. This is different to set top boxes in the Pay TV environment, where the set top box is integral to ensuring that only authorised subscribers are able to view the service. In the free-to-air environment, its function is simply that of a digital tuner; a temporary measure pending the availability of affordable television sets with integrated digital tuners (“IDTV”).

If consumers haven’t acquired a set top box (or IDTV) by analogue switch-off, they will no longer be able to view the existing terrestrial television broadcasting services.

AFFORDABILITY OF SET TOP BOXES

One of the critical success factors identified by the European Union was the “low cost and widely available” set top boxes.

In order to ensure that the migration to DTT is successful, the free-to-air DTT set top box should be a basic affordable set top box with the minimum specifications necessary for its purpose. In order to achieve this, the free-to-air DTT set top box should not have “bells and whistles” requirements which may be “nice to have”, but which would unnecessarily push up the cost of the set top box. One example is a mandatory requirement for an internet connection on the free-to-air DTT STB (e.g. an Ethernet port), as is currently being proposed in Namibia.

Research has shown that there is no consumer demand for interactivity or Internet connectivity through their television sets. Rather, research has shown that televisions are “lean-back” devices, unlike computers and mobile phones, which are “lean-in” devices. Consumers generally prefer to connect to the internet using their computers, mobile phones, and tablets (e.g. iPads), facilitated by mobile telephony. Accordingly, mandating the inclusion of an Ethernet port on a DTT set top box unnecessarily pushes up the cost of the DTT set top box, without a corresponding tangible benefit.

Another example of an unnecessary set top box element is so called “set top box control” – a technological mechanism to prevent set top boxes from being used outside a particular country.

SET TOP BOX CONTROL – A CONTROVERSIAL MATTER

Set top box control has led to significant delays and controversy in South Africa. In August 2008, the South African government decided to subsidise the DTT set top boxes for five million of the poorest South African television households, to the tune of about R 2.5 billion. The notion of set top box control was subsequently born in order to protect the state’s investment in subsidised set top boxes, to avoid a situation where set top boxes acquired using taxpayers’ money left the country. Five years on, however, the issue of set top box control has not yet been resolved in South Africa; and the matter has significantly delayed the commencement of the digital migration process.

Set top box control has also been proposed in Namibia, where the Namibian government plans to subsidise set top boxes for many Namibian TV households. Notwithstanding the Namibian government’s investment in DTT set top boxes, set top box control is questionable in Namibia, being the second lowest population density of any sovereign country in the world (little over two million total population, with an average of about 2,77 people per square kilometre). STB control also frustrates the trend towards regionalisation and efforts to remove barriers to trade between SADC countries.

If the digital migration process is to succeed, a basic, affordable set top box with no bells and whistles requirements is essential.

PREPARING THE CONSUMER

A second critical success factor is consumer awareness.

Analogue switch-off should not occur before a sufficient number of consumers have acquired the necessary equipment and migrated to DTT, lest masses of people are cut off from receiving existing analogue television services.

Consumer awareness is critical to educate people about the impending migration process, how it will impact them, and the steps they will need to take to ensure that they acquire a set top box (through government subsidies, if eligible, or through their own means) and are able to access DTT. This in turn depends on strong and clear market communication.

A case in point is Tanzania, which, on 31 December 2012, became the first country in the East African community to gradually switch off analogue terrestrial television broadcasting. Despite being the first to “go digital”, Tanzanians have been critical that the migration process took place prematurely. Various NGOs and broadcasters have called for the reinstatement of analogue terrestrial television, to give people more time to purchase set top boxes. In March 2013, Article 19 issued a press release stating that, at the end of December 2012, 50% of Tanzanian TV owners could not access TV services because they did not have set top boxes. Article 19 expressed its concern that Tanzanian consumers had received insufficient information about the new digital technology and about financial assistance in cases when they could not afford set top boxes. In April 2013 the Tanzanian government agreed to temporarily halt the second phase of migration from analogue to digital television broadcasting to assess impact of the first phase on the public.

CONCLUSION

All else considered, the above experience highlights the importance of a phased approach, accompanied by strong and clear market communication, to educate consumers well in advance of digital switch-off.

This is critical to achieving a smooth and successful switchover, to avoid delays, and to achieve the benefits of digital migration within the ITU’s June 2015 deadline.