100 percent digital migration achievable only with satellite Dennis Mbuvi

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Senior Vice President Commercial, for SES Africa, Ibrahima Guimba-Saidou, says 100 percent digital migration in Africa is "unachievable" without the satellite component.

As the 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union for all countries to have migrated from analogue to digital broadcasting, efforts in migration appear to be lagging behind in a number of African countries. Largely ignored too is the fact that digital terrestrial broadcasting roll out in a number of countries will not cover the whole population, meaning a portion of the population will be left without access to television. In Kenya, digital migration is expected to cover “at least 80 percent of the population” according to ICT Cabinet Secretary, Francis Matiangi. This means up to 20 percent of the population may miss out on the 40 new channels expected to come on in the digital TV roll out.

Senior Vice President Commercial, for SES Africa, Ibrahima Guimba-Saidou, says 100 percent digital migration in Africa is unachievable without the satellite component. Digital terrestrial television(DTT) is more efficient where there is a larger number of people, but becomes costly and infeasible in covering sparsely populated areas, where clusters of the population may be spread over a large area.

While a number of digital terrestrial repeaters are required to cover most of a country’s population, a single satellite beam will cover a whole country. Additionally, unlike a DTT signal which decreases in signal strength as one goes further from the repeater, a satellite signal is of the same strength across the country.

Satellite is also easy to manage in terms of implementation of changes as the changes done at the transmitting point, such as addition in number of channels or say upgrading the same to high definition, will be reflected at the receiving unit, as long as it supports the services - a user must have a high definition ready receiver to watch HD channels. In DTT,  the changes would require changes in repeater stations,  which again may end up being costly in areas with fewer population.

As for the cost, the Vice President says that the cost of a satellite kit is comparable to that of a set top box,  which users were already going to purchase in the first place.

When it comes to roll out of digital broadcasting over satellite, Ibrahima says that there are a variety of options to choose from. There however may have to be a policy on what satellite receivers users can purchase, as this will protect the rights of both content providers and broadcasters - such as when a broadcaster has rights to air content in one country. A satellite signal normally covers several countries, thus channels restricted to one country need to be encrypted to be only viewed in set top boxes viewed in those countries.

Options include government sponsored set top boxes, where public channels are offered free for the lifetime of the box, with other channels offered at a cost through pay TV operators.Governments may choose to subsidise the cost, such as from the digital dividend (sale of current broadcasting spectrum).

Governments may also choose to go through one or more existing pay TV operators, allowing the government to leverage on an already existing install base and economies of scale. Here, the pay TV operator is required to carry public channels at no cost. Some countries already have policies requiring pay TV operators to offer free to air channels for free, such as Communications Commission of Kenya Director General, Francis Wangusi, has said in the past on pay TV operators in Kenya.

A variation of partnering with TV operators may see government buying a satellite segment for public channels. A segment on a widely used satellite, such as SES 5, allows the public to use already purchased dishes without need for repositioning to receive public channels.

Other options include offering public channels at standard definition for free but charging for the same in high definition, or having users pay an annual access fee.

All in all, Ibrahima says it would be unfair for taxpayers to be left out of the migration due to their location. “When people want them to vote, they hunt them down, ” he says.

Other benefits of satellite include the provision of internet connectivity to the remote areas, where a 1 to 1.2 metre dish can provide both satellite TV and Internet connectivity starting at 64 kilobits per seconds. The connectivity can also be shared and reconfigured according to usage - such as as increasing the capacity to schools at certain times of the day.