Coming to screens near you: Television providers are getting ready for digital transition

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The Ministry of Digital Economy, Communication and Postal Services is responsible for designing Gabon’s strategy for the transition from analogue broadcasting to digital broadcasting, in order to meet the deadline fixed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). UHF analogue TV must be abandoned by 2015, whereas VHF analogue TV (generally used for public TV channels) is set to disappear by 2020. The National Agency for Digital Infrastructure and Frequencies is in charge of implementing the transition strategy and installing the required infrastructure. Although a general plan has been conceived, Gabon still lacks the resources to implement it, while the ITU deadline is approaching. So far, no infrastructure has been installed and the government is actively looking for strategic private-public partnerships to accelerate the process.

LIBREVILLE’S FORUM: A turning point toward common digital broadcasting standards for Africa was the June 2012 Forum on Telecom/ICT Regulation and Partnership in Africa, organised by the ITU, in partnership with the African Telecommunication Union (ATU) and Gabon’s Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services (Agence de Régulation des Communications Electroniques et des Postes, ARCEP). African stakeholders reached a consensus on the norms and technology to be used in their transition toward full digital terrestrial television (DTTV). Participants recommended the ATU should adopt the European TV broadcasting norm, known as Digital Broadcasting Video – Terrestrial (DBV-T), a broadcasting process that allows the transmission of compressed digital video and digital audio signals in the MPEG format. Participants also recommended the adoption of the MPEG-4 compression technology, instead of the commonly used MPEG-2. The use of MPEG-4 will enable African operators to develop mobile television services and broadcast 3D and/or interactive content. As for radio broadcasting, AM and FM analogue transmission will be replaced by the European radio digital standard, called Terrestrial – Digital Audio Broadcasting (T-DAB).

SORTING THE OPTIONS: Gabon is planning to transmit digital audio and video signals to broadcasting stations using a combination of fibre-optic cable, satellite services and mobile technology. In theory, the national backbone infrastructure to be developed will connect all provincial capitals to the new international fibre-optic cable landing point in Libreville, thus allowing digital audio and video signals to be transmitted nationwide to broadcasting stations. Although the submarine part of the backbone infrastructure – linking Libreville to Port-Gentil – is already completed, the terrestrial part has yet to be installed.

Considering the short time frame before ITU’s 2015 deadline, the transition toward digital broadcasting will thus require the use of satellite services, which offer the advantage of a point-to-multipoint coverage. Therefore, digital audio and video signals could be delivered to several terrestrial broadcasting stations located in remote areas, while waiting for the terrestrial part of infrastructure to be expanded to all provincial capitals.

However, ensuring full coverage of Gabon’s territory involves upgrading and/or installing 45 broadcasting stations throughout the country. Each station must be equipped with the appropriate system to receive digital signals, either from a fibre-optic and/or a satellite source, and with the required equipment to broadcast digital TV and radio signals in its area of coverage. The cost of this equipment is such that none of these stations have been upgraded or installed yet.

NOVEL CHOICE: An alternative solution recently put forward – and still under consideration – is to use the already existing terrestrial infrastructure of mobile phone operators and have it upgraded by for digital audio and video broadcasting by the operators themselves. In such a case, digital broadcasting, particularly in rural areas, would rely on long term evolution (LTE) technology, commonly referred to as 4G. LTE broadcasting systems enable transmission of point-to-multipoint digital broadcast and multicast services. “Pooling the 4G equipment of mobile phone operators could allow Gabon to meet the deadline of 2015, while ensuring full coverage of its territory and saving money on the heavy investment otherwise needed to install digital broadcasting stations,” Armand Clotaire Lichambany, the general manager of the Department of Promotion of Digital Economy at the Ministry of Digital Economy, Communication and Postal Services, told OBG. As for mobile phone operators, in exchange for their contribution toward DTTV migration, they would be granted 3G and 4G licences at a preferential cost. However, talks between the government and stakeholders on this issue have not yet begun. Thus, identifying a clear and financially realistic strategy for the transmission of digital audio and video signals in Gabon remains a key challenge for the success of the country’s transition toward digital broadcasting.

CURRENT PLAYERS: The first company using DTTV platforms to broadcast TV channels is Gabon’s Digital TV, branded as TNT Africa. Created in 2009, TNT Africa operates its own broadcasting stations and offers more than 60 TV and radio channels in Libreville, Port-Gentil and Oyem. Its services start at a cost of around CFA2500 (€3.75), but subscription requires the purchase of a dedicated converter box, sold at CFA50,000 (€75). Its customer base is estimated at 20,000 subscribers. TNT Africa’s DTTV competitor is Satcon, whose customer base is estimated at 10,000 subscribers. TNT Africa and Satcon face competition from French satellite TV provider Canalsat Horizons, a subsidiary of Canal+, whose services cover the same territory and whose hardware costs are similar to TNT Africa’s.

INFORMING & ACCOMPANYING: With less then three years left before ITU’s deadline, television retailers have started liquidating their stocks of analogue televisions. “Prices for analogue televisions have dropped, but people do not know the reason behind this. They are not aware that they are buying televisions that will stop being functional in 2015,” Jean Ogandaga, the deputy general manager of the Department for the Development of Digital Networks at the Ministry of Digital Economy, Communication and Postal Services, told OBG. “The digital transition will have a financial impact for families who will have to invest in new equipment. There should be campaigns to inform them, but unfortunately this has not been done yet due to a lack of resources.” The government is nonetheless planning to provide low-cost and/or free digital converter boxes to low-income families needing them.

DIGITAL DIVIDEND: Not only does digital broadcasting provide a better quality of transmission, it also has the advantage of using less spectrum than analogue broadcasting. Hence, the changeover toward digital broadcasting will result in what is called a digital dividend, with several frequencies being freed up for new use. Indeed, analogue broadcasting requires the use of a dedicated frequency for each radio and/or TV channel, whereas up to eight channels can be digitally broadcast through a single frequency.

Gabon’s freed-up spectrum will offer new opportunities for ICT investors. The ministry could allocate parts of the dividend to mobile phone operators and/or to high value-added services such as mobile commerce and mobile government services.

DEVELOPING LOCAL CONTENT & SERVICES: The migration toward DTTV should have a catalysing effect on the development of a local television industry. “With DTTV migration, a digital TV investor will no longer need to worry about acquiring his own broadcasting platforms. He will only have to worry about acquiring the production equipment needed to create its TV programmes. Transmission and broadcasting services will be rented from national broadcasting authorities,” Ogandaga told OBG. According to the ministry, the cost of a satellite broadcasting platform is CFA400m (€600,000), whereas DTTV gives investors a higher broadcasting capacity for a lower price. The ministry hopes DTTV will attract private investors, as Gabon has a deficit of local content. “With only two public channels, we can’t even create a multiplex package. Hence we need private investors to develop speciality channels – for instance in local languages,” Ogandaga said.

INTERNATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS: The ministry is actively looking for strategic public-private partnerships to implement its digital broadcasting transition strategy. The ministry is currently considering a proposal submitted by the Chinese company StarTimes. In August 2012, ministry representatives attended an international ministerial seminar on DTTV development in Africa, organised in Beijing by StarTimes. During the seminar, StarTimes announced a $450m investment in DTTV projects in Africa, financed by the China Africa Development Fund and the China Development Bank. StarTimes’ proposal for Gabon is said to include a loan with preferential interest rates, to be granted to Gabon in exchange for preferential fiscal rates.

With a narrow time-frame left before the end of analogue broadcasting, the formation of public-private partnerships may be necessary to ensure a successful migration towards DTTV. The use of the 4G technology and collaboration with mobile phone operators could also be another approach to addressing this challenge.

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The Report: Gabon 2012

Telecoms & IT chapter from The Report: Gabon 2012

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