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Long-awaited Free2View to launch over West Africa in “next few weeks” and on IS17 in February 2011

There has a steady but increasing trade in set-top boxes that can receive Free-To-Air content, particularly in southern Africa where broadcast signals spill over between countries. Free2View is planning to turn the availability of FTA channels into a business model by offering users an FTA bouquet for a one-off fee for the set-top box. Russell Southwood spoke to Elissa Wilding, CEO of Free2View last week in London.

Below the radar, there has been a steady sale of satellite set-top boxes that can capture FTA programmes broadcast over satellite. Dealers have been reporting sales as high as 50,000 boxes a month going out, largely into Southern Africa. In Botswana, these boxes are called Phillibao after the Chinese manufacturers and they are enabling local viewers to get SABC content. The same thing is happening in Namibia where those buying can see the latest season of 7 de Laan rather than the last season.

Free2View aims to turn this emerging trend into a business model by attracting those offering satellite FTA content a single platform and adding one or two of their own channels as an incentive for them to pay a one-off fee for the set-top box. According to Wilding:”We aim to harvest what’s available (for viewers) and add one or two quality channels. We will then add more channels as time goes on.”

In a TV broadcast market where there are now a number of Pay TV providers, the rationale of the business is based on the fact that the majority of African TV viewers are FTA watchers and are likely to remain so.

There are lots of FTA channels being broadcast by satellite but there is no single, easy way of getting them and no electronic programme guide to make sense of what you might choose to look at. As Wilding told us:”There is nowhere to find them consistently.”

There are two types of channels using satellite: broadcasters (particularly public ones) seeking to extend their often limited terrestrial footprint and Governments that for reasons of self-promotion want their station to be widely available across a region:”These channels usually go out as vanity projects and don’t know how to sustain themselves.”

For the consumer, the set-top box will cost US$110 and is able to serve 4 orbital positions:”We can therefore take the existing signal from broadcasters but we want them to migrate to our platform.” In addition, users will require a satellite dish. Compared to DTT set-top boxes, with which it may compete, it’s not cheap but it’s certainly within the reach of a range of people, including those further down the social scale scale from the top LSM categories.

Its own channel will include IEC, an MGM-branded block of movies, South African Asian diaspora channel Saffron, Nollywood, BBC and ITV content. The aim is to bring every aspect of the digital world into the home, including Internet: boxes have the capacity to include a 3G “dongle” plugged into the back of them.

The business model is based on attracting pan-continental advertisers:”My background is TV advertising. There’s a billion dollars of advertising in South Africa and the same amount in Sub-Saharan Africa. We’re really talking to global advertisers and there is a potential of 85 million TV households, excluding Nigeria. It’s a huge market and the question is: how can we really mine it? The money’s there but not many people know how to get it. The idea is to put this all together and offer it to them.” And the minimum audience level at which they become interested? 50,000 viewers. “Everybody wins. Consumers get greater choice. Advertisers get to their audiences.”

On advertising sales, Wilding says:”We’re collaborative. Any advertising sold by channels will be shared.” In addition, it will do its own advertising sales on its channel. There has been a lot of interest from both FTA and potential Pay TV broadcasters.” For the latter, the platform can offer conditional access and a more cost-effective way of getting to market.

And what of the regulatory anxieties about unlicensed content in their countries? “We don’t collect revenues in these countries and regulators have been supportive because we’re not taking money from consumers.” There is also a parallel Free2View Foundation that will get involved in offering education and social messaging:”For example, we can offer satellite bandwidth at set hours for rural schools. You might use a good teacher in one school to show how a class can be taught in other schools.”

Free2View will be available in the next couple of weeks over West Africa on C-band and by February 2011, it will be available across Africa on Intelsat’s IS17.

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