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Nigeria’s endless wait for digital broadcasting/ internet television

Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta. PHOTO: YouTube

The world is in a digital era and the prevailing technological changes have a huge impact on all media forms.

Television, which is not an exception, is today facing rapid transition towards Internet-based services.

Before now, television was once as simple as radio – scheduled broadcasts received by the public with a device capable of changing channels and adjusting volume. But not only has technology brought new innovative features, it has also challenged the notion of what television as a media really is.
 
Although, video on demand is well established with services like Netflix and iTunes, the lean-back TV experience is essentially unaltered since the analog days.

Initiatives such as Magine and SVT Flow suggest a future of semi-linear viewing that could be the beginning of a restructured TV landscape, without the current form of traditional channels and programme schedules.
 
New services that attempt to define what television should be are frequently being released on the market: new devices, new applications and new models of content delivery. Although the options are many, it is difficult to recognise a solution that covers both the need for usability and a comprehensive access to content.
  
In Nigeria, part of the move to expand and improve content delivery via the television has been through the migration from analogue to digital transmission, which has been foot-dragging since 2007, due largely to poor funding and lack of political will on the part of successive administrations.
 
The transition from analog to digital television began around 2004 throughout Europe and America, and today, most countries have completely turned off analog broadcasting, except predominantly African countries.

The country’s digitisation process took off effectively on October 13, 2008 with the inauguration, by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, of the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on Transition from Analogue to Digital Broadcasting in Nigeria.

The panel presented its report on June 29, 2009, but there was no follow-up until April 4, 2012 when the Federal Executive Council (FEC) claimed it released a White Paper on the report.

Earlier in 2007, while appreciating the vital need to keep up with the rest of the world in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)-led global digitisation movement, the Federal Government also approved June 17, 2012 as Nigeria’s transition date, three years ahead of the ITU mandate.

The justification then, according to the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) was to use the three years (June 17, 2012 to June 17, 2015) to address whatever hiccups arising from the switch-over and perfect the mechanism before the final date.

Till date, the country has missed three deadlines – 2012, 2015, and 2017 – and the process has not moved far.

Nigeria’s Internet Space

BENEFITTING from Internet-based television broadcasting requires maximum level of infrastructure, especially broadband facilities.
 
Agreed, Nigeria has about 10 terabytes bandwith capacity at the shores, thanks to the efforts put in place by firms including, MainOne, Globacom, WACS, ACE and SAT 3, which have berthed submarine cable facilities in the country.

The challenge, however, has been the lack of last mile infrastructure that would take these facilities across the country.  
 
This challenge has had great drawback on the country’s match towards enthroning a broadband regime.

Though, there was a plan in place to deepen penetration by 30 per cent by the end of the year, according to the National Broadband Plan (NBP), the processes leading to this move have been very slow.
   
In Lagos recently, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umaru Danbatta, informed that the country has hit 22 per cent, which to stakeholders should have been far beyond that if the Federal Government has shown utmost commitment to the process.
  
Indeed, the country has 102.8 million Internet users, but these subscribers are online through the narrow band, that is, the GSM platform.

This therefore speaks volumes of the infrastructure gap in the country.
  
Back in 1996 when the NCC licensed 38 Internet service providers to sell Internet services in the country, many ICT experts remarked that the development would lead to the end of traditional television as a medium of influence.
 
To market watchers, there is no doubt that the Internet is a powerful medium of communication, and the belief that the Internet will replace traditional television is not peculiar to Nigeria.
 
For instance, when the Internet launched in America, many in the industry thought that television viewing, as is still known here, had reached its end.

However, new innovations are emerging, which are giving impetus to the idea.

Huge Bandwidth, Low Internet Speed
 
LOCALLY, fears for traditional television heightened in January 2016, when Netflix announced its global expansion to 130 additional countries, including Nigeria. What followed was huge excitement in the country.

This was mostly on account of the pricing, which many consumers assumed was way lower than what pay televisions charge.
 
Internet speed in the country, despite the huge bandwidth capacity, is still among the slowest in the world. According to the Ookla’s Speed Test index (June statistics), out of 124 countries examined, the country ranked 106 with 9.87 download speed as against global average of 23.54 mbps.

This is another issue to contend with, according to a telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko.
 
Aluko stressed that to run an efficient Internet-based television transmission, the Internet facility must be superfast, and the Internet gateways must be open and guaranteed.
   
“I think we can’t really say that we are there. As far as Internet TV broadcasting is concerned, it is for the future in this country.

In addition to that, with the slow pace of the country’s digital migration, it is still a dream to enthrone a regime of Internet-based TV transmission. Our infrastructure are still very small and obsolete,” he stated. 
  
Buttressing Aluko’s claims, the President, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) Olusola Teniola, pointed out that there is not enough broadband infrastructure to provide the right consumer experience, stressing that low latency networks were key to this success.

Can IPTV Play A Major Role?

REPORTS have it that Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) has the potential to take niche broadcasting to a new level, because it can be produced, broadcast very cheaply and accessed by audiences around the world for nothing.

The Director General, Delta State Innovation Hub (DSHuB), Chris Uwaje, told The Guardian that Internet television is “streaming television, which is generally accepted as the dissemination of digital TV content streamed via the Internet gateway.

That is why Internet or streaming television is classified as different from dedicated terrestrial television delivered by over-the-air aerial systems.”
  
According to him, there are many critical issues surrounding the advent of IPTV, as is know. “First, it has the potential to create a new distinct platform for digital content broadcasting.
 
“Regulatory issues are fundamental and critical, which also calls for licensing matters.

The positive side of streaming TV is that it has cost effective production and the advantage for Africa/Nigeria is that digital content streaming targeted at education would be the priority for now.
 
“Furthermore, digital content streaming TV enhances the broadband penetration mileage and local content development in Nigeria, but huge capacity building of digital content streaming manpower and skills would be required,” Uwaje noted.

Broadband Access Network

ACCORDING to experts, broadband access network must support quality of service (QoS), multicast, the separation of end user traffic, and differentiate between services.

It must be secure and robust (with high in-service performance), and it must have a telecommunications management solution that supports network operation and maintenance (O&M).

Many of these features have been standardised in DSL Forum specification, which calls for an Ethernet-based aggregation network.
 
There are several technical challenges to offering IPTV service, in addition to bandwidth issues described previously.

Broadcast television requires extensive use of IP multicast, and most network equipment cannot support the 100 multicast streams required to offer an IPTV service.   
 
It may be desirable to deploy emerging techniques such as MPEG4 Advanced Video Compression (AVC), which cuts the amount of bandwidth required roughly in half (MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding).
  
VoD servers must concurrently support thousands of subscribers, each seeking to view, rewind, pause and fast forward their picture.

Placement of VoD caching to minimise network usage is critical to keeping the overall cost down.

Distributed head-ends may be needed to capture local channels and add that into the video stream.
 
NCC requirements also mandate that an antenna be placed typically within 55 miles of each subscriber.

Ensuring that thousands of users can order a pay per view movie minutes before it starts is another possible bottleneck.
   
All of these reflect that IPTV is a nascent technology. Riding the silicon technology curve will allow service providers to overcome most of these obstacles, with bandwidth and lack of standards remaining the biggest challenges.

Most telecoms company no longer question whether they will deploy IPTV, rather the question is when they will deploy it.
  
In the Nigerian context, Teniola noted that at the unicast streaming level, some parts of the country can feasibly enjoy jitter-free IPTV services.
  
On the need for a policy to drive Internet-based television, the ATCON president said this is not a policy issue, but a private sector opportunity, determined by innovation, capital, user awareness and content to build a business case that makes financial sense.
   
According to him, it is worthy to note that the technology that supports this service already has convergence of control and data built into the platforms sold by the OEMs.
  
He stressed that the standards body has a role to ensure quality, consumer experience and interoperability of set-top boxes, interfaces and end devices are affordable and available at the right price to the consumer.
   
Teniola said that lack of local content and the dearth of digital literacy were areas of greatest threat to the successful adoption of this technology because “It is not simply plug and play,” he stated.

NBC Advocates Leasing Spectrum Approach To Speed Up DSO

It may not surprise many that even though the country has missed three deadlines for digital switch-over, it is still in dire need of necessary infrastructure that would make the switch-over process smooth and possible.

For instance, more than a decade after the transition date it set for itself expired, the country has barely launched successful digital television in five states, including the Federal Capital Territory.

In June 2017, Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, said the country would switch over from analog to DSO in six states across the six geo-political zones by July of the same year.

The states were Enugu in the South East, Kaduna in the North West; Gombe in the North East; Kwara in the North Central; Delta in the South South and Osun in the South West.

So far, only four states- Kaduna, Enugu, Kwara and Osun have switched on. This is even happening more than one year after, contrary to government’s plan of achieving the feat within a month.

This means that only six states, including the FCT have successfully switched over to digital television, with 31 states still outstanding.

The Director General of NBC, Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, in a recant at a press conference last year that the June 17, 2017 deadline was just a “benchmark date” for the digital switch over in the country.

He said that many had misconstrued the process, assuming that on the said date, almost like a magic wand, Nigerians would wake up to find that the country had switched off analogue and switched on digital television.

Kawu, however, pointed out that the huge financial implication of the process is, perhaps, the reason why many countries have missed the deadline, despite having about nine years to prepare for the process.

As it appears, Nigeria is still unsure of where the money for the switchover projects will come from.

The NBC, which is the arrowhead of the process, had directed all multipoint multimedia cable distribution system and direct-to-home operators to digitise their operations, which was adhered to and successfully done.

Following the successful launch of the pilot scheme in Jos, Plateau State, on June 30, 2014, then NBC Director General, Mr. Emeka Mba, assured of a smooth nationwide digital switchover by January 2015.

Three and a half years later, only five other cities have switched to digital television.

Long before the ITU deadline came to pass, the NBC’s former boss had lamented lack of funds and how it might affect the switch over process. 

He disclosed that the country would need about N69b for the project to scale through, with a projection that the previous administration would provide a substantial part of the funds, while the remaining would be independently sourced by the Commission.

Even though the budget had been fixed about five years ago, the funds never came as at the time the last administration left office on May 29.

How Others Have Fared So Far

ACCORDING to ITU, all regions are keen to achieve digital switchovers, and some countries have already managed to complete the process.

In fact, the ITU Regional Radiocommunication Conference 2006 (RRC-06) in Geneva, was based on frequency coordination for systems using the terrestrial digital video-broadcasting (DVB-T) standard.

Around the world, several standards have been developed for digital terrestrial television.

The principal ones are the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) standard developed in North America, Integrated Services Broadcasting — Terrestrial (ISDB-T), developed in Japan, and adapted for use in Brazil, and a number of other Latin American countries, and DVB-T (and its successor, DVB-T2). China also has its own standard called Digital Terrestrial Multimedia Broadcast (DTMB).

In North America, much of Europe and some parts of Asia, analogue switch-off has now been completed. Most countries in Latin America and Asia-Pacific have plans to complete the transition between 2015 and 2020.

In Africa, Algeria started the process in 2009, and analogue signals were switched off on November 10, 2014. Gabon turned off all analogue signals on June 17, 2016.

Ghana achieved total switchover in 2015; Tanzania on December31, 2012, and becoming the first country in mainland sub-Saharan Africa to commence the switch-off of its analogue terrestrial television signals.

One key feature of Tanzania’s market is that analogue terrestrial broadcasting has historically had only limited population coverage (around 24 per cent), with many viewers using free-to-air satellite television instead.

In that country, the migration to digital television has been largely policy-driven, rather than market-driven. DVB-T2 was chosen as the standard.

DigiTeam Nigeria, the body responsible for managing digital switchover in the country is made up of government and industry representatives.

It is, in particular, responsible for developing the country’s standard for manufacturing set-top boxes to receive digital signals, as well as, for ensuring that adequate information is provided to viewers and that all switchover problems experienced by viewers are addressed.

Two broadcasting licences were awarded to deliver digital broadcasting services.

The first was awarded to NTA Star Times, a joint venture between the Nigeria Television Authority and pay-television operator, Star Times, which has been designated as the first national digital signal carrier for the country.

The second licence was awarded to Pinnacle Communications in July 2014. DigiTeam Nigeria has indicated that the release of a third licence will be reviewed as the market develops.

Some of the concerns have been that while about 32 million set-top boxes are needed to cover the entire country, the country has been able to produce a little over one million set-top boxes so far. 

A single national digital multiplexing licence using the DVB-T2 technology was advertised earlier in 2014. Many have argued that if Nigeria had adopted this DVB-T2 standard from the beginning, the process would have perhaps, been completed, considering the fact that it worked perfectly for Tanzania and other countries.

Commenting on the challenges facing the project, the Director, Broadcast Monitoring, NBC, Prof.

Armstrong Idachaba said, “All over the world, digital switch-over is capital intensive. One of the most creative ways of raising funds is the leasing spectrum.

The other way is through government making budgetary provision for it.

Even though Nigeria is not lagging behind in digital television, more work needs to be done to achieve the feat.”

On how StarTimes reduced its participation in the process, Idachaba noted that the Pay TV company had a different approach that did not tally with government’s idea of having DTT that is free to air.

“Government is driving free digital television that is accessible to all. We are looking at how to accelerate the process.

But even though all the other components of the project are available, inadequate funding still threatens the speedy roll out of the digital switch-over project across the entire country.”

He expressed hope that by October, Gombe and Delta states would come on board, saying, “The second phase of the roll out plan would kick off immediately.

We have identified the next six states, which would be announced by the government soon.”
 
According to him, the signal distributors are on ground but they also need to acquire certain categories of equipment, transmitters and set up sites, adding that NBC was engaging the Nigerian Governors Forum and the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) to ensure successful roll out of the project.