Mobile TV goes off in search of audiences as roll-outs increase across the continent

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Kenyan Film testThe recent formal launch of mobile TV in Nigeria and the agreement signed between Algerian mobile operator Nedjma and the state broadcaster ENTV are just the latest in a growing number of implementations across the continent. Although described as television, mobile TV is a new and unproven medium but serious players – both in the broadcast and mobile sectors – are betting significant sums of money on the outcome. Russell Southwood looks at developments so far and whether mobile TV will be a winner with audiences in Africa.

The number of mobile TV implementations is increasing and in many cases is following the trail of 3G upgrades by mobile operators. Nevertheless, the key “first mover” has a parallel DVB-H implementation strategy. Africa is in the vanguard of this new technology as mobile operators take a bet that a significant minority of their users will be attracted to spending money to watch content.

The early implementations so far include:

* First off the blocks were Naspers-owned DStv which started trialling services with MTN in South Africa two years ago with its DVB-H network in Johannesburg, Soweto, Cape Town and Durban. Current trials now cover all three operators. Full implementation has been held up by delays in getting a licence broadcast. DStv says that in most instances its existing rights have covered the extension to mobile transmission.

* As part of its dual track strategy, DStv has also been working with Vodacom that is putting out a mobile TV offer over its 3G and HSDPA networks. These include reversioned news bulletins from e.TV, South Africa’s private free-to-air channel. Reversioning includes taking tighter shots of presenter’s heads and increasing the size of news item titling. There are also two minute “mobisodes” of Afrikaans soap “Seventh Avenue”. Usage levels vary enormously but it is at this early stage it is achieving users levels in the tens of thousands.

* DSTV’s recent formal launch of mobile TV in Nigeria comes hard on the heels of its roll-out by their mobile subsidiary in Kenya (again a formal launch follows) and Namibia. More countries are coming up and the strategy appears to be an exclusive arrangement for a year or more with the mobile operator followed by a more general roll-out. It is building DVB-H networks in the main urban area in each of the new markets it enters. However in Nigeria, its Abuja launch will be followed by a similar roll-out in other Nigerian cities over the next couple of months.

* In September last year, the Ghanaian incumbent’s mobile subsidiary OneTouch implemented a mobile TV roll-out with privately owned Black Star TV, using another of the mobile broadcast standards, DMB-T. Heads of State attending the African Union Summit in the middle of last year were treated to a trial of the service. DMB-T handsets will cost 2 million cedis and Black Star TV claims that a Korean manufacturer will open an assembly plant in the country. The latter should be filed under the “we shall see” category

* Last week Wataniya-owned Algerian mobile operator Nedjma signed a deal for roll-out with state broadcaster ENTV of its output. Nedjma said ENTV was providing an “invaluable source of content” for the Algerian public and that "the best sequences of the sports shows in a digitized and an interactive format" will be made available. This is an example of a broadcaster using existing material and rights to extend its potential income streams, something particularly important for cash-strapped state broadcasters.

At the time of writing this article, there were nine countries and eleven operators offering some form of 3G service that would enable mobile TV. DStv’s strategy is to roll-out in half a dozen or more countries and depending on take-up, increase that number accordingly. It is working with both existing operators with 3G networks and building its own DVB-H broadcast networks. The Ghana service which is using the DMB-T service is the odd one out, although this standard is more widely used in Asia.

Although many commentators have been quite dismissive about viewing a sports event with a small ball on a very small screen, I have seen a golf match on a DVB-H-enabled mobile handset and the picture is much clearer than you might expect.

The largest current obstacle to take-up of services by users will be the cost of DVB-H and 3G enabled handsets. The initial high cost of handsets will make this a “slow-burn” growth rather than a “sudden take-off”: unless you’re prepared to give this five years, don’t even start playing the game. But don’t underestimate the ingenuity of the market in providing second-hand, “refurbished” phones from Europe and elsewhere if there is genuine market demand. Indeed, it’s interesting to note in South Africa that there is a significant number of pre-paid users amongst Vodacom’s mobile TV user base.

For broadcasters, it has to be a “no-brainer” as they prepare for the coming fragmentation of viewing patterns that will start (or has already started) with liberalisation and will come nearer to completion with the increase in channel numbers post digital switchover. It adds a modest but useful stream of additional income and begins to get them ready to be “multi-platform”. Oh, I hear the sceptics say, Africans won’t want “multi-platform”. This is to forget that there are several different audiences out there: the small but growing middle class numbering in the millions and the rest numbering in the tens or hundreds of millions.

For audiences, there are probably three overlapping categories of likely users: firstly, “I want it and I want it now”, secondly, “I can’t get to a TV but I need to see…” and thirdly “I’m sitting in a traffic jam that’s not moving so why don’t I just see…” In the first category, Vodacom’s usage levels went considerably higher during South Africa’s triumphant progress through the Rugby World Cup. In the second category, you’ve missed an episode of a soap but you want to know what happened. And the third category is obvious to anyone who has sat in a stationery car in a traffic jam in Lagos, Nairobi, Dakar or anywhere else in Africa for that matter. Showing key mobile TV programming moments to those who you’re with will become a social moment and a shared experience.

So in years to come, expect colleagues to break into a conversation with you and say “I must go, I’ve just got to catch the goals in the African Cup of Nations match between Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire on my mobile phone…”