Internet takes centre stage for African broadcasters : News channels, feeds, distribution and downloads

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This week has seen a slew of announcements that highlight the fundamental impact the Internet will have on Africa’s broadcasters. ANN 24 has launched what it claims will be the first African Internet TV news channel. The BBC has announced that it will offers its play and download software to international broadcasters. Vizada has teamed up with Streambox to deliver IP-streamed reporting solution. And as if that wasn’t enough to take in, content distribution platform A24 signed one of the continent’s premium news generators, Al-Jazeera. Russell Southwood looks at how the Internet will play a key role in African broadcasting.

Launched by Cameroonian Fidelis Ngede with several other colleagues, ANN24 (Africa News Network 24) claims to be Africa’s first Internet TV news channel and seeks to present itself as an African contender alongside the likes of CNN, BBC News and France 24. Is this hubris on a grand scale or something that might really be possible?

ANN24 wants to show Africans in Africa to the world through the eyes of African’s abroad. That is done by providing an African perspective on Africa and world events, including top stories, business, sports and entertainment. The broadcast schedule is designed to allow Africans and non-Africans from all backgrounds to express their views through the programmes.

One of the reasons why it has used Internet to broadcast their programs was financial, as the "80 millions euros" needed to launch a traditional TV station was not in their budget. In the future, Fidelis Ngede said that he would like ANN24 programs to be broadcast on any device and media: Cable, satellite, ADSL or mobile.

The founder further explained that they have a network of journalists in London and correspondents across Africa (Douala, Yaoundé, Libreville, Abidjan, Dakar, Nairobi, Rabat, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Brazzaville), a partnership with "Agence de presse Africaine" and potential links with A24 Media and Impala Télévision (production house based in Johannesburg founded by Patrick Fandio, ex "Grand Reporter" for tv stations France 2 and TF1).

The site's traffic is promising with 60,000 visitors each month and more than 300,000 pages viewed. What is interesting, according to Fidelis Ngede, is that site users come from all over the World: USA, UK, France, China, Japan, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Croatia, SA, Nigeria, Cameron, Gabon, Côte-D’ivoire, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Ghana, etc. 21% of the total audience is in Africa, 66% in Europe and North America and 22% in Asia.

ANN 24 is one of the first pan-African news online channel to broadcast on a 24/7 basis. The company is a news and documentary network focused on providing independent and uncompromising journalism on Africa. Ann24's team, in collaboration with journalists around the continent, investigate, report and debate stories on the critical issues of our times.

The network's Business Day programming (weekdays from 5:00 a.m.- 7:00 p.m. GTM) is produced at ANN24's headquarters in the City of London, England.

Alongside this content play, the UK’s Government-funded broadcaster revealed at IBC that it will make its iPlayer software available to international broadcasters who are keen to share in the technology, and high levels of searches for non-BBC content. iPlayer allows users to stream programmes live and download them as well as offering powerful search capacities. Missed your favorite programme ? Simply go to the broadcaster’s web site and download it or stream it in what has been dubbed catch-up TV.

Speaking at IBC conference in Amsterdam, Erik Huggers, Director of Future Media & Technology at the BBC, said that the Corporation is looking at allowing third parties access to the platform. “It is not a concept of aggregation, but federation,” said Huggers. “It is about making sure each of the broadcasters around the world can continue to have a direct relationship with their users.”

Huggers told conference delegates that there are many searches made on iPlayer for non-BBC content, such as (fellow UK broadcaster) ITV's show 'Coronation Street'. He added that by opening up the iPlayer, the BBC may also be able to spread the load of making the catch-up TV service available on a variety of devices, as there are now 23 versions of the iPlayer out in the wild, and counting. "The concept of opening up our investment and technology infrastructure, user experience and design is central for us in helping other broadcasters achieve their goals of continuing to have a direct relationship with users rather than being disintermediated by third-party aggregators," Huggers added.

For African broadcasters looking for cheaper ways of getting live feeds from reporters, satellite provider Vizada has teamed up with Streambox, which provides IP-based newsgathering solutions, have signed an agreement to provide media organizations with a high quality video streaming service without significant infrastructure investment. The bundled service has been developed particularly for media organizations based in areas with more limited access to dedicated network infrastructure. That sounds like a significant part of Sub-Saharan Africa to me. In 2007, a major Indian broadcaster used the service to cover the Cricket World Cup. Reporters and bureau staff found that the image quality was extremely close to that obtained through a dedicated, private network.

The last set of Internet applications sneaking up on everybody is content distribution platforms using the web. This week A24 Media (see Content news below) announced that it had signed up Al Jazeera to distribute its African content. Although A24 has many interesting content providers, this is probably its first heavy-duty broadcast customer and bodes well for the increasing credibility of the platform. Whilst A24 is based in Africa and focused on news, German-based mediapeers (see Technology and Convergence) is seeking to enter the market with a content distribution platform that offers African fiction producers the opportunity to play outside of the content. The payment models for both platforms may not revolutionise content sales but will subtly change the balance of remote and face-to-face contact between buyers and sellers.

The continent will see three international fibre cables connecting its east coast to the world and four on its west coast by 2011. Prices for end-users are going down and capacity is going up. National fibre networks to deliver this capacity across countries is happening below the radar with surprising speed in many places. Mobile Internet use is accelerating and early indications are that TV clips and TV-related material will become popular.

At every point in the broadcast chain, the Internet and sending material using IP is becoming central. It is more profound than the switch from analogue to digital. African broadcasters need to look carefully at how they produce and transmit their output or risk getting left behind by faster thinking, Internet-savvy competitors.