Black Affairs, Africa and Development

The untapped potential of Africa’s ‘digital dividend’

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Around a third of African countries are set to miss a global deadline for the transition to digital terrestrial broadcasting.

This delay could cause the region to forego over $50bn in estimated dividends from the switch – as well as social and cultural benefits.

By 17 June 2015, most of the world plans to switch off analogue broadcasting signals. This was the plan agreed in 2006 by the member states of the International Communication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency dedicated to information and communication technologies.

The deadline applies to 120 countries – including 24 African states – with a waiver until 2020 for another 34 countries in Africa and the Middle East.

However, as the date approaches, only Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda and Tanzania have completed the switchover to digital terrestrial television (DTT), according to the ITU.

The main consequence of not meeting the digital migration deadline is that after June, analogue signals will no longer be protected from interference. The ITU forecasts problems may arise particularly in border areas where one state has transitioned to digital broadcasting and the neighbour has not, with the latter being responsible to resolve any harmful interference.

Digital broadcasting offers a number of advantages over analogue, according to the agency. For viewers, it means more programmes, interactivity and improved quality of image and sounds.

For TV operators and content providers, it means lower costs. DTT requires less energy to ensure the same coverage as analogue. One transmitter can broadcast multiple channels, which allows for shared infrastructure.

DTT also occupies less radio-frequency spectrum than analogue TV. Governments can profit from the sale of the frequencies freed by the migration – the so called “digital dividend” – to private operators. Part of the band released are set to be allocated to mobile broadband, according to ITU member agreements signed at summits in 2007 and 2012. This move would allow even more individuals to get online using their mobile phones.

The scale of the opportunity

By not meeting the deadline African countries are missing out on a significant economic opportunity, according to Mortimer Hope, director for spectrum and public policy Africa at GSMA, a trade association representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide.

GSMA estimates that, under a best case scenario in which digital licensing could be rolled out across sub-Saharan Africa by June 2015, governments in the region could benefit from a total GDP increase of $49bn over the next five years, with a further $15bn increase in tax revenues by 2020.

Up to 200,000 new businesses could be created, as well as half a million jobs. This would mostly result from increased economic activity related to high speed internet, but also in sectors like broadcasting, digital content creation, and related technology solution provision, according to Mr Hope.

Existing companies could also start selling value-added services in the digital space, allowing them to move up value chain.

Mr Hope claims that given the delays in the transition, it is unlikely the region will benefit from the full potential of the digital migration by the end of the decade. However he notes that “if the transition is completed in the next couple of years, it could still bring about some $26bn in GDP boost by 2020”.

The main driver of the transition, however, should not be economic gains, points out François Rancy, director of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau.

“The most important aspect of making the band available for broadband mobile is that all citizens in all the countries can have access to the internet,” he says. “[The digital migration allows] more extensive internet coverage, therefore reducing the digital divide” between those who have access, and those who do not.

“It would give a chance to all the population to be connected,” he claims.

According to the latest ITU data, Africa has experienced the strongest growth in mobile broadband subscriptions since 2010, with an over 800 percent increase in the past five years. However, it still has the lowest penetration rate in the world at 17.4 people out of every 100,000 people. This compares to 40.6 in the Middle East, 42.3 in Asia-Pacific, 49.7 in the Russian Commonwealth, 77.6 in the Americas and 78.2 in Europe.

Alongside increasing internet connectivity, the digital migration will also expand the opportunities for locally produced programming on broadcast television.

DTT can host more channels than analogue, which will in turn require more content to populate them. The decreased costs of making TV will also remove some of the barriers to entry of new players into the market, according to Meredith Beal, technology adviser for the Africa Media Initiative, a pan-African organisation that seeks to strengthen the continent’s private and independent media sector.

“[More companies will start] delivering content to a greater variety of people on a broader range of subjects,” he says. “I see opportunities in vernacular languages programmes, more thematic channels on hobbies, fashion and food, for example.”

A long process

Given these potential advantages, why has digital migration been delayed?

Some countries have experienced difficulties raising the money needed for the digital switchover. Funds are needed not only to upgrade the infrastructure but also to subsidise the purchase of set top boxes for households. The digital migration has also not been a political priority in many countries, while also facing resistance from analogue broadcasters who do not want more competition in the sector, according to the ITU’s Mr Rancy.

At least 19 African countries that agreed to the 2015 timeframe for transition are very unlikely to meet the June deadline. These include some large economies such as South Africa and Kenya. Nigeria is working towards a 2020 deadline.

But this does not mean nothing has been done. According to Sylvain Béletre, associate editor and senior research analyst at Balancing-Act, a consultancy that has been tracking the progress of the digital migration in Africa, DTT has been deployed in at least 23 African countries in parallel to analogue TV. Pre-deployment pilots have also been running in another 12 countries.

Meanwhile, the ITU acknowledges that the process of switching to DTT is long and complex – and while incomplete in many jurisdictions, efforts are being made. “We can certainly say that almost all African countries are seriously working on this issue,” Mr Rancy asserts.

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