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Delivering African TV content in a multi-platform world – the choices broadcasters face

Once upon a time, African broadcast was simple. You were a TV station and you organised your own content and transmission, vertically integrated all the way. Your transmission was a combination of terrestrial transmitters and satellite links to them. Users simply had a TV aerial, which they moved about a bit until they caught the signal. Then along came Pay TV, which delivered content using satellite signals, dishes and set-top boxes. So far, so simple, says Russell Southwood.

But a combination of the digital transition in broadcasting and growth of household broadband is creating a number of different choices for broadcasters, whether they operate with Free-To-Air or Pay TV business models. In more competitive markets like Uganda and Tanzania, the regulator has separated out the signal carriage function and created (in each of these countries) three licensed signal carriers.

So broadcasters no longer need to be vertically integrated but can choose a signal carrier at price and for the transmission coverage area they want. Thus far the licensed signal carriers have been given the task of investing in and operating DTT terrestrial transmission networks but the choice of delivery platform is going to be wider than just DTT:

Fibre-To-The-Home: At the high-end, you have Fibre-To-The-Home and HFC cable. In Kenya, Wananchi’s Zuku Triple Play brand is now being rolled out in wealthier parts of Nairobi using HFC cable. Jamii Telecom wants to become a “transport company” for content providers wanting to deliver their product to viewers using Fibre-To-The-Home. And Orange Kenya (see Investment below) has just thrown its hat into the ring to be offering the same service.

In South Africa, i3 Africa has announced it will start rolling out its Fibre-To-The-Home network in Durban. The same type of services are being offered by Algerie Telecom (see Technology and Convergence below) Orange Mauritius is using a slightly cheaper Fibre-To-The Cabinet approach to deliver its MyT content brand to its 50,000 plus subscribers: Click here for more information.

For the Free-To-Air broadcasters, this kind of delivery can only really be an add-on as the economics of Fibre-To-The-Home and Fibre-To-The-Cabinet only really make sense in urban areas with dense populations or in geographically small areas. But for Pay TV operators it offers an attractive route for delivering television, voice and data to high-end customers. Furthermore because it is interactive, it can be used to create audience interaction and more straightforwardly commercial things like payment systems for goods and services ordered off air. But if like DStv, you’re already paying for transponders worth of satellite transmission, then switching to broadband transmission may well be less attractive. Although it has investigated IPTV delivery, it has not made the move.

DTT: Terrestrial digital transmission (DTT) will almost certainly form the core of the new TV content transmission networks. Once investment has been made in the network, then it will offer pretty much the same service as the current analogue transmission except in two respects. Firstly, the independent signal carriers may choose to extend the percentage population covered, although they will be hampered by the extent to which electric power is available outside urban areas. Secondly, they will have the potential to offer significantly more channels to broadcasters.

At its simplest, a broadcaster might use an additional channel to run a catch-up channel (run programming one hour later) or group all its international series into a themed channel. It also offers Free-To-Air broadcasters a relatively inexpensive route into offering Pay TV channels, either in alliance with a Pay TV provider or under their own brand.

The creation of new DTT signal carriers is spawning both new content providers and new content channels. Companies like NGB and Star Times are investing in DTT signal carriage in exchange for being able to sell their own branded Pay TV offer. But there are also local examples of the same phenomenon.

In Uganda, Mo TV is the content arm of one of the independent licensed signal carriers set up by local investors and it has been soft launched during the digital transition pilot roll-out phase in Kampala. It has been offering 25 channels for US$15 per month and a promotional PVR/STB combination for US$41. When the pilot phase for DTT finishes at the end of April, it will seek to roll-out across East Africa. In only a few months, it has attracted just under 5,000 subscribers in Kampala.

The drawbacks of digital terrestrial transmission are the same as those of analog terrestrial transmission. The investment cost is high but will undoubtedly be less if shared as a service between several broadcasters. Geographically hilly places are sometimes complicated and/or expensive to create a reliable footprint for.

From the viewer’s point of view, there is the need for a Set-Top-Box (STB) and these are currently between US50-60 in most countries. Despite much well-meaning talk, no Government has yet got to the point of removing all taxes from STBs to encourage take-up. A US$20-30 STB would undoubtedly be affordable by the same number of people as own mobile phones.

DTH: Satellite operators have for a long time been providing a satellite signal for Free-To-Air broadcasters who need to be able to reach beyond their terrestrial footprint or who simply for propaganda purposes like their signal to be available more widely.

In the African context, the joy of satellite is that it can deliver a signal practically anywhere without high levels of capital investment. But sending more than one channel by satellite has until recently been relatively expensive for Free-To-Air operators.

And the viewer again needs a Set-Top-Box which costs more or less the same as a DTT STB. However, in various parts of Africa, viewers have been buying cheap “unlocked” STBs (with antenna) and simply grabbing those Free-To-Air satellite signals mentioned above. From the user’s perspective, this means that for example in Namibia he or she can watch SABC soapies at the same time as South African viewers without having to wait for the new season.

An attempt was made to turn this “below-the-radar” trend into a business model by Free2View which wanted to offer local Free-To-Air broadcasters a way of both delivering their channel locally and offering them Pay TV channel delivery opportunities. For its part, Free2View wanted to make its money be selling inserted international advertising across the continent. The venture failed but the idea has not gone away.

At a local level, MultiTV in Ghana (using SESAstra – See Broadcast News below) has sold over 300,000 DTH STBs and so there is clearly an appetite for having television delivered in this way.

The existence of the DTH route for delivery is probably relevant in three ways. Firstly, it offers new entrants or niche Free To Air channels the opportunity to build up a sufficient “critical mass” of audience to begin to make sense to advertisers. Secondly, in those countries which are less attractive to DTT infrastructure investors, DTH offers a route to delivering a digital transition. Thirdly, even in those countries where terrestrial DTT is the primary means of delivery for Free-To-Air television, satellite will be a useful additional means of ensuring that TV broadcasts reach the maximum number of viewers.

The confusing thing from a broadcasters’ perspective is that this landscape of fragmented delivery platforms requires a different way of thinking. In the old days, you chose a delivery channel or built your own network. In the future, the broadcaster will go shopping for delivery platforms.

The old instinct was to choose a single delivery platform, precisely because it was simpler. From a Free-To-Air broadcaster’s perspective, the right instinct should be to choose to be on as many delivery platforms as you can. For the danger in a fragmented landscape is that the burgeoning number of Pay TV providers will increasingly take out the viewing time of the wealthier segment of viewers. So unless Free-To-Air channels are on the Pay TV STBs they risk getting less viewing time. At the other end, a cheap satellite delivery to those outside DTT transmission areas will add a significant additional audience as the Free-To-Air viewers begin to fragment.

Additionally, broadcasters will increasingly be able to make programmes available through live streaming (over PC, laptop and mobile) and through online delivery services like You Tube and Vimeo. With increased bandwidth, the latter should in most African countries be able to deliver between 50,000-100,000 views in most African countries and considerably more in larger markets.

The difficulty from the broadcasters perspective is that costing FTTH, DTT and DTH is currently like comparing apples and oranges. There’s no easy single currency (like cost per 000 viewers delivered) to make comparisons between the cost-effectiveness of these delivery methods. But there’s no doubt that you’ll be seeing more of all these delivery platforms in the future.
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