Mr. Christoph Limmer, Vice President, Global Sales and Commercial Development for Video Business at Eutelsat, in this interview with CHIMA AKWAJA, proffers the combination of terrestrial and satellite infrastructure as a fast track for digital migration for African countries.
What is the state of digital migration in Africa?
The transition to digital television (TV) in Africa has so far been a slow and laborious process, even in the most developed countries. Only six African nations have actually completed the switchover from analogue to digital TV.
So what’s the story behind this complex transition? In 2006, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency, issued the Geneva 2006 agreement, signalling the development of ‘all-digital’ terrestrial television services.
The motivation behind the transition was to stimulate ICT applications and make more efficient use of spectrum through the digital dividend that comes with phasing out analogue TV. Although the initial deadline, set for June 2015, was missed by most African countries, the digital revolution is nevertheless underway in a number of countries, including Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
In Africa, we still face a lot of challenges about digital migration, especially in the emerging markets, West African and South America.
We haven’t made too much progress, most of the digital migration today that we see on the continent are driven by private companies like StarTimes, MultiChoice but overall, the continent is still far behind the target.
As you know, the official switch-off date for the continent has been passed and all the countries are in the process of negotiating individual deadlines with the ITU for specific switch-off date for country.
What can African countries do to meet the digital migration deadline this time around?
I think at the end of the day, African countries have to think, not just in the terrestrial infrastructure but have to think about a combination of infrastructures.
To be quite straight forward, if you want to migrate analog to digital, and there are countries in Africa that are thinking about it and have raised a point.
They say, you know what, we auction the analog spectrum to the mobile operators and we migrate broadcasting space from analog to digital, using satellite and by doing that, they can do that from one day to the next.
Just put the channels on satellite, you switch-off the terrestrial network and you have digital migration in 24 hours.
What I want to illustrate is that, if you combine infrastructures- terrestrial and satellite, you can be faster in achieving the objectives of digital migration which means changing the analog to digital.
It can be very cost effective because they combine different infrastructures and they use different infrastructures with audience, languages.
They all show individually and last but not the least; you reach everyone in the country which is also one of the objectives.
When you switch off TV signal, you want to make sure that not a certain percentage of the population can listen to your programme while another part of the population is left out because the terrestrial networks have not been upgraded.
So, to some extent, I think if countries focus on combining different infrastructures and not just looking at the terrestrial infrastructure, digital migration can be achieved much faster in a more cost effective way.
Most governments that have embarked on Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) have quickly understood that, as content and signal quality progress and the number of towers grows, the efficiency of satellites for content distribution comes into play. There is in fact a crossing point where the cost of bringing content from a central hub to more than a dozen towers is less expensive and more reliable via satellite than by fibre.
Environmental conditions or the risk of outages and fibre cuts can even make the reliability of terrestrial infrastructure an issue.
Amongst others, China’s StarTimes as well as France’s Canal+ Overseas use Eutelsat satellite capacity in Africa to distribute channels to terrestrial towers.
In order to complete coverage and reach homes not covered by terrestrial, both companies offer a DTT and Direct-to-Home (DTH) package to offer content to everyone in their target countries to capture mass market audiences.
In Africa, there are complaints of inadequate funds and poor regulatory implementation for digital migration, why is this so?
I agree again that digital migration is a very costly exercise. I think every country has got its budget for different projects. I believe that the budget of a country can be used in a different way.
Instead of trying to operate the terrestrial, the country should have looked earlier into organization of infrastructures because it could have saved a lot of money. Lack of funding, honestly I cannot answer the question because every country is making their own budget and I don’t know how they allocate the money. The money could be spent on public initiatives.
I just believe, by combining infrastructures, you can save a lot of money which then by saving money, allows you to properly roll-out faster.
On the other hand, when you talk about regulatory issues, I also don’t believe that this is the main reason why digital migration has been put back in the African context.
Again, I believe the main reason is really to make sure two things. To make sure that you combine infrastructures and to make sure you have content of what you want to benefit from the digital migration. So, we have countries, for example, they say okay, if you migrate from analog to digital tomorrow, that’s great.
We can add another 20 to 40 channels but there is no content, there is not enough content so they wonder why they really have to migrate.
Again, budgets are territorial. Every country is doing their own budget and I cannot say that it is a budgetary issue. Sure, it is a costly exercise but if you combine infrastructures, you can save a lot of money and I don’t believe the spectrum is one of the main reasons why Africans wait.
What are the benefits of digital broadcasting for Africa?
The transition from analogue to digital TV is a logical development for the broadcasting industry, bringing significant advantages for all players across the value chain: Some of these include opportunity to transform the diversity, signal quality and reach of channels into viewer homes.
Also, the opportunity to generate infrastructure upgrades and stimulate Africa’s vibrant content creation industry. Release of analogue frequencies for other applications such as mobile services.
This is why private players like China’s pay-TV provider StarTimes, Canal + Overseas or MultiChoice are already establishing themselves as the continent’s key players in fast-tracking digital migration efforts.
First of all, availability of content, availability of better, improved picture and sound quality. Because you create a whole new ecosystem, there is also a lot of job creation around because new channels mean new content production, different content production, then you have the whole digitization process to bring the content to the studios.
Also not to forget, you reach more people. So, I would say there are many advantages that you have when you go into digitization.
For the telecom operators that will likely use the Digital Dividend Spectrum, what are the opportunities?
First of all, I’m not sure if all the available spectrum will be allocated to the telecom operators after the migration, certainly, the telecom operators will get their share but again, that depends on the country by country basis, how much the spectrum will be allocated to the telecom operators or to other areas like broadcasting.
I guess when we talk about telecom operators, one opportunity that it brings is that we hopefully service quality will get better, more reliable data quality which is still one of the big challenges we face all over Africa, availability of data and I will hope the mobile operators will use the spectrum to improve that.
And again, telecom operators will decide how they come to use this. The opportunity is to increase the quality of the availability of data.
From your experiences traversing Africa and meeting with government officials and regulators, why have they not thought of combination of satellite and terrestrial fibre infrastructures?
I wouldn’t say they haven’t done that. There are African countries, governments that are using satellite already as a compliment. I think what happened in Africa, Africa, for example compared to Europe, was that whereas in Europe, the original initiative was taken by the government and then the private companies complimented the remaining part. In Africa, the private companies started the terrestrial fibre and satellite infrastructures. If you look at StarTimes for example, they are here since a while already. In Africa, the private companies started first whereas in Europe, the government started first and private companies complimented.
Now, the question is how we close the remaining gaps because in all the markets where the private companies are active, on the terrestrial side, they don’t have coverage.
I think the remaining gaps that needs to be covered is, how to provide the people that are not enjoying the national private and public channels in a country with digital broadcasting without paying for it. It is a challenge and that needs to be solved too.
The bottom line is that in most cases a terrestrial/satellite solution beats standalone terrestrial in terms of cost effectiveness and speed. Nations that proclaim universal coverage as a policy cannot achieve their goal by placing a bet on terrestrial alone.
The basic rules that apply in Europe and the Americas also apply in Africa.
Once the problems of cost, reach and speed of deployment are resolved, the challenges for any country preparing for digital transition include managing the service, sourcing consumer hardware, set-top box distribution and content.
In sharing our longstanding technical and commercial experience from working with public and private broadcasters, as well as regional governments around the world, Eutelsat can provide the most suitable satellite and best-in-class technical solution with the required expertise to drive the digitalisation process and contribute to the growth of a dynamic and lasting broadcast sector.
Globally, we have gained a leading position in digital transition, with over 10 years of pan-regional experience and more than 20 countries served, including in Europe (France, Greece, Italy, Ireland, etc) and in Africa (Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, etc).
Compared to the coverage and capabilities of terrestrial networks, Eutelsat’s satellites provide cost effective and immediate access to TV customers anywhere, with consistent signal quality across the coverage, be it directly with Direct-to-Home (DTH) or indirectly by distributing content to other networks, including cable, DTT and IPTV.
What is the average duration for complete switch-over and how much can Nigeria save money by adopting satellite?
It depends on the size of the country. It will take a country like Nigeria which is huge, this can take years. I can give you some benchmarks from countries. For example, in France, it took six years, in Italy, it took five years and in Germany, it took five years. So, I would say it really depends on the size of the country and the geographical challenges.
Between one and five years.
I don’t know how much the Nigerian government has planned to spend, upgrading the terrestrial network but it is a difficult question for me to answer.
Maybe you have more insight on the cost in Nigeria operating the terrestrial network but again, I can give you a rough idea about the cost of the satellite which is in a range, so, if you know the terrestrial costing, let me know how much you can save.
Let’s be precise, no country in Africa, except the small ones like Lesotho, really little ones, no other country in Africa will achieve migration for less than $100 million. It is almost impossible to be below that number.
How can satellite accelerate digital migration?
Whereas terrestrial is historically a dominant broadcasting platform, satellite is uniquely positioned to complement terrestrial infrastructure, by extending digital TV to homes in more remote or less populated areas.
Satellite broadcasting calls for no additional massive civil engineering investment: vast regions, including rural areas, islands and border areas are automatically and ubiquitously covered. This means that that then financial investment is only a fraction of the full upgrade of a terrestrial network.
Homes within a satellite coverage can receive DTT channels immediately without having to wait for new investment in terrestrial infrastructure and its gradual deployment across a territory.
There are multiple examples of countries that have concluded overwhelmingly during the process of digital migration that a combination of infrastructures was by far the most efficient and cost-effective way forward.
Once the case for a satellite distribution network becomes compelling, the choice of frequency band comes next. In many regions C-band is the preferred choice for distributing content to terrestrial towers thanks to its resistance to rain fade. Ku-band has the advantage of enabling smaller dishes and is frequently used to complement terrestrial networks by DTH platform operators.
Two solutions are possible in combining DTT and DTH: hybrid solutions with C and Ku-band, using C-band for feeding towers and a DTH complement in Ku-band for homes in rural areas.
Alternatively, a single band solution, adopted notably in Zimbabwe, uses a single Ku-band transmission to feed towers as well as homes equipped with a Direct-to-Home dish.
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