Tanzania goes digital – viewers find their screens going blank

Broadcast

There are concerns that Africa is behind deadlines towards the global switching off of analogue broadcasts.
 
In large part owing to its socialist roots, few would play up Tanzania’s appetite for technological leaps of faith, with neighbouring Kenya, seen as more savvy, likely to get all the plaudits.

But at midnight on December 31, Tanzania’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) took the plunge and started a staggered switch-off of analogue broadcasting, as Kenya and Uganda, initially scheduled for the same deadline, grew cold feet.

The phased switch-off has since been nothing short of tempestuous, with up to half of the country's television set owners confronted by blank blue or black screens, leaving several miffed media bosses in its wake.

Demanding a roll back to analogue, the Media Owners Association of Tanzania (MOAT) said the blackout was significantly denting their advertising revenue, while analysts and campaign groups also piled in, arguing that affected citizens are being denied their constitutional right to information.

But the government has remains that this will not happen, with TCRA director-general John Nkoma countering that the media bosses were afraid of competition in the widened digital space, given that preparations for the shift started in 2006.

"People have to seize the opportunity to create more content as the benefits of digital migration are obvious,” Prof Nkoma pointedly told the Africa Review. “You have to change the old business models.”

The change to digital terrestrial television (DTT) in more developed economies has been both steady and shaky, with the US having completed its shift in 2009 following several deadline changes, while many other European economies have also migrated. Analysts say Africa, well behind on timelines, has to find ways of learning from those who have gone on before.

It is projected that sub-Saharan Africa will have 33.8 million DTT (both pay and free-to-air) homes by 2018, from 4.6 million at the end of last year, according to Digital TV Research Ltd.

There are approximately 90 million television households in the region, including North Africa, with this number expected to grow to 124 million by 2015, further data from Dataxis Intelligence and the Television Bureau of Advertising adds.

But brave Tanzania and progressive Mauritius aside, the rest of the continent looks like it will woefully miss deadlines—some self-imposed-- setting the region up for more some turbulent times.

The five-member East African Community—that also counts Rwanda and Burundi—had settled on a December 2012 deadline to shift to digital broadcasting, ahead of the June 17, 2015 global cut-off date agreed by the International Telecommunications Union, the UN agency that allocates radio spectrum and satellite orbits.

But Kenya, under pressure from a consumer rights watchdog, pushed its switch-off date to September 15 this year, while Uganda’s earlier effervescence has also quietly levelled off, with the country now looking to 2015 along with the rest of the world.

Rwanda and Burundi are yet to have anything on the ground, a picture widely replicated on the continent. Most of southern Africa had set itself a December 2013 deadline. But in early February, Zambia conceded that it would miss the cut off. A week earlier, South Africa had indicated it could even miss the global 2015 deadline, while ECOWAS feels all at sea.

Experts cite many issues for the faltering migration, but one, the DTT set-top-box (STB) remains the main culprit. The STB converts the digital signal to one that can be understood by an analogue television set, which is the predominant type in Africa.

Its availability and perceived high-pricing has dogged the uptake by consumers already low on information about the need to migrate.

"The single most important lesson one can learn from the Mauritian experience is the one concerning the STB chaos," Mr Trilock Dwarka, the chair of the Information and Communication Technologies Authority of Mauritius—the only African country that has so far managed to shift to digital, told the Africa Review.

“You cannot allow the importation of set top boxes on the basis of price alone because then everybody runs to China and you land up with asynchronous audio and video problems, impulsive noise, frozen pictures and access to one MUX [multiplex firm] or to two.”

Kenyan importers were left holding useless stock after importing the lower-spec DVB-T decoder, only for the government to say that a new standard, the DVTB-2 was needed.

The Tanzanian government says it has exempted taxes on decoders and set top boxes, but media owners there claim Chinese importers are getting preferential treatment. The TCRA admitted that different suppliers had their own retail prices, leading to a wide variation in prices, which could be putting off many poor Tanzanians.

Many target audiences also remain in the dark as to how the shift will benefit them, with analysts blaming extremely poor public awareness campaigns for the confusion.

"I believe the most important element and perhaps the most difficult is public awareness. How do you tell everybody in the country what they have to do by a certain date in order to keep their access to television programming – news, information and entertainment? It’s important to communicate the benefits to the citizens,” Mr Meredith Beal, a media owner in the USA, told this writer.

"Everyone has a stake in the migration…television stations need to ensure that they don’t lose customers, which in turn impacts advertising rates and revenue; government needs to ensure people maintain their access to news and information and the public has to also take responsibility in spreading the word as well as finding out what they need to do,” said Mr Beal, who also works with the Africa Media Initiative (AMI).

Beal says the benefits included the more efficient use of spectrum as up to 10 television channels can be accommodated using the same bandwidth that would normally carry one channel using analogue.