Digitisation of Broadcasting: Any progress?

Posted by News Express | 22 October 2017 | 1,948 times

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As a media communication stakeholder, this writer is often attracted to the much-talked about issue of digital switch over (DSO), which the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has commenced in phases.

In Abuja, the federal government recently switched on digital television broadcasting, signposting the gradual discontinuation of analogue broadcasting. Though the Abuja digital switch over came months after it was done in Jos, Plateau State, but it is still worth celebrating. The Abuja end of the exercise is handled by a privately administered digital signal operator. 

The Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) has another strategic arm of the DSO through its forward-looking entity known as Integrated Television Service (ITS), which is regarded by the ‘wisemen’ chosen by the Federal Government that came up with a technically sound white paper on the digitisation switch-over programme of the Nigerian government. This government-owned enterprise, which has a technical partnership agreement with the globally-reputable StarTimes of China, is competently playing its own role as a strategic Digital Signal Distributor.

Understandably, this highly innovative agency of Nigerian Television Authority, known as Integrated Television Service, has recently come under a misguided campaign of calumny. This is reportedly linked to an allegedly discredited erstwhile staff of the Nigerian Television Authority, Mr Tony Dara, who is said to have some deep-seated grudges against his former employers for relieving him of his services, because he allegedly absconded at the end of an overseas’ scholarship programme, after which he failed to return to Nigeria. 

Mr Dara is alleged to have had a very uninspiring record during his service with NTA, as captured by an internal management memo which spelt out the reason for the termination of his employment. The memorandum was sighted by this writer, which convinced me that his recent serial articles to demonise the Integrated Television Service were motivated by his desire to destroy the good corporate image of his former employers, for self-centred and non-altruistic reasons.

There are strong-enough reasons to link his distasteful campaign against the ITS to some unsavoury business partnership he unsuccessfully sought to strike with his former employers, the NTA, which rejected the proposal he purportedly presented for a training programme for the technical department of the NTA. At the last count this fellow - with alleged bottled-up angst against NTA - has authored articles in the media to ridicule the efforts, technical competences of the Integrated Television Service, in what is suspected to be a sponsored campaign to tarnish the good image of the management team of the ITS. 

On their part, the government agency in the spirit of decorum, has behaved in the most civilised way by intellectually debunking the kernels of this campaign of calumny, by scientifically adducing evidence- based presentations to demonstrate the technical competences of their staff and management.

A philosopher, C Rajagopiachari, had rightly stated: “To acquire money, man goes out of his gear surpassing all moral codes and civic awareness. So precious, but skin-deep and precarious a thing is civilisation; one fair rough criteria of any civilisation is the dearness and sanctity of its contracts. If civilisation is to be bound up with material advancement, we must accept its inevitable consequence, loss of freedom in exact proportion to the march forward.”

And, Radha K Mukherjee added his voice of wisdom, by asserting: “It is the ultimate role of civilisation to aid man to realise his highest potentialities.”

We will return to this issue of a well-coordinated campaign to discredit the NTA by its former staff, who himself was discredited by the way he left the authority, due to circumstances that were said to have breached his employment status ab initio

First, let’s ask ourselves what the Digital Switch Over is all about.

According to the National Broadcasting Commission, Digital Switch Over is the name given to the process of changing from analogue to digital TV broadcasting. The digital television transition or analogue switch-off (ASO) is also the process in which analogue television broadcasting is converted to and replaced by digital television. But how does it benefit the consumers of broadcast services in Nigeria?

 Digital broadcast, according to experts, means that consumers can enjoy a wider variety of shows on multiple channels with a better quality of broadcast. It also facilitates reduced power and energy consumption, and spectrum efficiency, which brings a host of associated benefits for consumers and broadcasters. For instance, in Abuja, TV viewers will be able to enjoy 30 channels, unlike the limited number of channels offered by the analogue TV.

 Many people today, according to an expert quoted in Daily Trust, will be familiar with analogue broadcasting: having a restricted choice of programming due to limited space for channels; having to tune the TV to your region to ensure that you could pick up broadcasts; having to play with the antennae to get a smooth, uninterrupted signal. But digital TV has changed all that.

The digital dividend will be used by the telecom industry players, thereby giving more Internet access to the people, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Also, broadcast transmissions involve many players in the chain-content producers, chain programmers, point-to-point links (such as between the studio and the transmitter station), manufacturers and end-users. All of them will benefit immensely from the DSO. But, what steps have we adopted to achieve this milestone of digitisation of broadcasting in Nigeria?

 Recall that ITU gave Nigeria up to June, 2017 to switch from analogue broadcasting to digital, in order to free up some spectrum for telecoms use. If Nigeria meets the deadline, it means the country will cease to broadcast analogue TV. There is this talk about the soap box. This is a box-shaped device that converts a digital television signal to analogue for viewing on a conventional set, or that enables cable or satellite television to be viewed is a critical component of the entire mechanisms of digitisation. 

Television owners generally will be expected, as of necessity, to get set-top boxes to receive digital signals. 

The government subsidised set-top boxes, according to the NBC, are being sold across markets and shops at N1,500. But TV viewers will pay N1000 annually for TV licence fee, which would be put inside a fund for the use of the industry and members of the public. Also, those with low signals in their areas will need external antennas that will give them clearer signals. The 30 channels operators on the Abuja Rollout have been trained and sensitised on the management of the channels, according to the NBC. 

Viewers can reach out to the NBC call-centre operators and receive services, or have their boxes activated even as the Federal Government is credited as stating that over 30 million TV set-top boxes were being locally-made to give more Nigerians opportunity to own the device. Under the Federal Government's white paper on Digital Switch Over, the Nigerian state has set up a monitoring team known as DigiTeam. Today, they are headed towards Oshogbo, to take first-hand look at the transmitters of the Integrated Television Service. Edward Idris Amana, Chairman of DigiTeam, a body of stakeholders set up by the Federal Government to coordinate the digital switchover in the broadcasting industry had earlier stated that it was expected to be completed by June 2017. He had recently hinted this while presenting Nigeria’s progress report, but the digital switch over is now being executed in phases.

Interestingly, the head of the DigiTeam had stated that the signal distributors are now in place, while a total of 13 companies for the manufacturing of set-top boxes have been approved.

His words: “As of today, the set-top box manufacturers have set up assembling plants in Calabar, Port Harcourt and in Lagos,” adding that each plant will be employing a minimum of 2,000 personnel directly. 

Amana said that the transition was not only to move the existing analogue stations onto the digital platform, but also involves the transformation of the quality of existing stations and better viewer benefits.

But what are the stages of digitisation in Nigeria, if one may ask?

 NBC, the official regulator, had told the media that the next move is to simultaneously switch on six states, each drawn from the geopolitical zones of the country.  

The Modibo Kawu-led NBC said it would engage the Nigerian Governors Forum in the next phase of digitisation process. What is this whitepaper on digitisation of broadcasting in Nigeria? 

 The preamble to the blueprints stated that the transition from Analogue to Digital Broadcasting in Nigeria is a part of a global initiative driven by the International Telecommunication Union. The Geneva 2006 Agreement had set June 17, 2015 for UHF, and June 17, 2020 for VHF as the dates after which countries may use those frequencies currently assigned for analogue television transmission for digital services, without being required to protect the analogue services of neighbouring countries against interference. These dates are generally viewed as an internationally mandated analogue switch-off dates, at least along national borders.

Consequently, in 2007, late President Umaru Yar’Adua approved the transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting in Nigeria, effective from June 17, 2012, in line with the ITU resolution. On October 13, 2008, the then president inaugurated the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on Transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting in Nigeria, with the following Terms of Reference: Recommend a policy on digital terrestrial broadcast transition, using global best practices; Recommend appropriate regulatory framework; Recommend a National Broadcasting Model; Assess the impact of the digitisation on the consumers and recommend possible government intervention; Determine the quantum of expected digital dividend; Assess environmental impact of digitisation, if any, and recommend steps to be taken; Advise government on any action relevant to smooth transition in Nigeria.

Salient recommendations enshrined in this Federal Government’s white paper are as follows: Adoption of a New Policy and Regulatory Framework in the Broadcasting Sector (2.1, p 5).  Consequent upon the establishment of the PAC, the committee elaborated a new policy and regulatory framework with far-reaching consequences for the positive development of the broadcast sector in Nigeria, taking into account international best practices in general, and local conditions in particular. In order to establish a solid foundation for the implementation of the transition programme, the committee recommends that the Federal Government adopts the proposed framework as well as the strategy for the successful implementation of the transition, the main components of which are described below. 

Government accepts the recommendation for the formulation of a new policy and regulatory framework in the broadcasting sector. Splitting of Broadcasting Services into Broadcast Content Provision and Broadcasting Signal Distribution (2.2, pp 5-6). To maximise the utilisation of the broadcast infrastructure and improve on the quality of content creation, the committee recommends that a new broadcast model, which separates the functions of the Broadcast Content Provider, and the Broadcasting Signal Distributor, be adopted. Others are recommendation recorded as serial number 11.0. On Single versus Multiple Broadcasting Signal Distributors (2.3, pp J 6-7), the committee notes that there are three basic options of licensing signal distributors, namely: (i) each broadcaster implements its own signal distribution network as is currently the case, thus creating a multiple broadcasting signal distribution regime; (ii)  a number of multiplex operators are licensed, each of which will provide the broadcasting signal distribution for a limited number of broadcasters; and (iii)  a single broadcasting signal distributor is licensed to provide the signal distribution network for all broadcasters in the country.

Government said it notes the three listed basic options of licensing signal distributors. The committee further recommended in number 11.2. For economic, commercial and security reasons, the committee recommends that the government should approve the establishment of a single Broadcasting Signal Distributor, which will serve the function of a multiplex operator, with the proviso that the regulator at the appropriate time will evaluate the market and take a decision as to when and how other Broadcasting Signal Distributors may be licensed.

Government notes the three options, accepts the recommendation to establish a single Broadcasting Signal Distributor for a transitional period of three years, and: a. approved that more than one signal distributor be licensed in addition to the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), the public licensed signal distributor; another signal distributor should be licensed immediately while others could come on stream as market exigencies dictate, in Recommendation number 11.3. The committee recommends that the operations of the Broadcast Signal Distributor should not have political, religious or ethnic bias and should be strictly monitored by the regulator, and that other existing technical regulations applicable to the present broadcasters as appropriate should be binding on the Broadcasting Signal Distributor. Government accepts this recommendation. 

Significantly, government accepts that the Backbone of the Broadcasting Signal Distributor (2.4, p 7) and further agreed with the committee's recommendation that it would be most efficient, if the infrastructure of the Broadcasting Signal Distributor should be established as soon as possible, and at the least cost.

Also government accepts that in order to maximise the existing broadcast infrastructure, the committee recommends that the existing and massive broadcast transmission infrastructure owned by the Nigeria Television Authority. The Voice of Nigeria (VON) and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) should form the backbone for the new Broadcasting Signal Distributor, which must be able to absorb the transmission infrastructure of other existing broadcasting corporations.

As committed civil society practitioners, HURIWA is worried about the opaque nature of information dissemination from relevant government agency, with specific reference to the National Broadcasting Commission, which has yet to inform Nigerians on the whole truth regarding the alleged N2.5 billion it gave to one of the signal distributors, which is a private-sector owned establishment.

Allegations and counter-allegations of unpreparedness, favoritism, nepotism and embezzlement of taxpayers’ money by industry players have also flared up. Twice, Nigeria missed the digital switch-over (DSO) deadline.

Stakeholders in the broadcast industry believe that Nigeria would have gone far by now, if some of the ripples had been avoided, because the country has missed two deadlines for switch-over, which have been rationalised by the National Broadcasting Corporation as normal teething problems, whereas billions of taxpayers’ money to the tune of N2.5 billion is allegedly being used to fund a private company, which by contractual agreements should be paying the Federal Government.

HURIWA has resolved to send a freedom of information request to the hierarchy of NBC to demand unambiguous response in writing to provide evidence - satisfactory reason regarding the alleged grant of such a humongous sum to a private enterprise and under what modality. We will seek clarification to know the status of the grant, if any. But, if we are not satisfied, we will proceed to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to demand forensic investigation of this damaging allegation.

We got the information from very senior insiders working for government that, indeed, the sum of N2.5 billion of public funds was gifted to a private signal distributor.

Our worry stems from the missteps committed by the government in the power sector in which the DISCOS were gifted with billions of naira of tax-payers’ money. But, till date, Nigerian electricity consumers are groaning under poor power supply. Recently, the National Electricity Regulatory Agency (NERC) fined one of the DISCOS the sum of N50 million for failure to comply with operational standards.

We are also aware of ongoing campaign of calumny targeted at the government-owned integrated television service: one of the two signal distributors of the Digital Switch Over. We are aware that a fifth columnist working to destabilise the Digital Switch Over as is being revolutionised by ITS has gone to the media to cast aspersions on the integrity and authenticity of the state of infrastructure installed by the ITS, which is owned by NTA. The NTA, as you know, belongs to the Nigerian public. Our duty as patriotic human rights defenders is to intervene, whenever we think there are subterranean plots to undermine the success of any publicly-owned enterprises, as part of our statutory mandate as human rights defenders.

We are aware that some of these wild allegations are being bandied to discredit the credibility of the resilient works of the government-owned ITS, just so that the sponsors of these campaigns of calumny could scoop more free government money for themselves at the detriment of the masses.   

Contrary to their claims that the NTA-owned ITS-installed transmitters have been discontinued by the original equipment manufacturers, we have extensively used our international network to verify that the broadcast technology is very dynamic, but there are opportunities for backward integration. DVB-T2 technology (which ITS uses) is reportedly commercialised in 2008. They were bought as DVB-T2 and not DVB-T, as alleged by those who are waging a well-oiled campaign against the government-owned ITS.

We have learnt that the transmitters in use by ITS in Jos, Ilorin, Osogbo and Enugu are custom-built DVB-T2 by Rhode & Schwarz. ITS have back-up transmitters and signal processing equipment which can be deployed real time in case of failures. We, therefore, urge President Muhammadu Buhari to ensure that the pronouncements as encompassed in the government’s white paper are implemented to the letter, so the broadcasting/communication rights of Nigerians are not undermined by fifth columnists.

•RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via doziebiko@yahoo.com 

Source: News Express

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