Business

Revisiting Nigeria’s digital switchover project

With the recent switchover in Lagos, the Federal Government of Nigeria renewed its commitment to continue with the digital migration journey. However, while this had raised the hope that completion of the 14-year old project was imminent, events after showed that the wait for a nationwide analogue switch-off may have just begun. SAMSON AKINTARO reports

After a long pause, Nigeria resumed the digital switchover project with the analogue switchoff in Lagos on April 29, 2021. With the Lagos launch, analogue broadcasting has now been switched off in six states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Starting with the Jos, Plateau State pilot launch in 2016, the project had also been launched in Kwara, Kaduna, Enugu, and Osun states. Touting the Lagos launch as the groundbreaking resumption of the second phase of the project, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, had noted that after a three-year stoppage, the project was now on “full throttle.” According to the minister, the DSO train was to move to Kano State on June 3, Rivers on July 8, Yobe on July 15, Gombe on August 12, Imo on August 24, Akwa Ibom on August 31, Oyo on September 9, Jigawa on September 23, Ebonyi on October 17, Katsina on October 21, Anambra on November 4 and Delta on November 18. But that was not to be as the Kano, Rivers and Yobe launches are yet to happen as of the time of filing this report. Incidentally, government had set another deadline of 2022 for a complete digital switchover in Nigeria based on the timelines released in April.

The journey

After the 2006 ITU’s Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06) in Geneva, Nigeria, alongside 119 other countries, signed a treaty agreement heralding the development of ‘all-digital’ terrestrial broadcast services for sound and television. In the treaty, transition day for all members was fixed for June 2015. Incidentally, Nigeria started preparations for this journey early enough. In 2007, while appreciating the vital need to keep up with the rest of the world in this ITU-led global digitisation movement, the Nigerian government had 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 that may arise from the switch-over and perfect the mechanism before the final date. But that was where it ended as the plans could not materialise due to what industry analysts described as a lack of political will on the part of government. By October 13, 2008, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua inaugurated the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on Transition from Analogue to Digital Broadcasting in Nigeria. The panel presented its report on Monday, June 29, 2009. However, no follow-up step was taken until April 4, 2012, when the Federal Executive Council released a White Paper on the report. Eventually, with the release of a government white paper on the digitisation, government, in December 2012, inaugurated a 14- man transition committee called DigiTeam Nigeria, with Edward Amana, an engineer, as chairman. The new team led by Amana, set a fresh date of January 1, 2015, as the switch-off date from analogue broadcasting, with plans to conclude the digital switchover in Nigeria before June 17, 2015. NBC had drawn a phased rollout plan, beginning with the pilot city switchover in Jos, and its plan was to complete other phases on or before January 1, 2015. The Commission was able to ride on the back of NTA Star- Times to accomplish the Jos pilot city switchover, having designated NTA as the national digital signal carrier for the country. Unfortunately, all these efforts and plans could not take the country to a point where it could be counted among the few African countries that met the digital switch deadline as of June 17, 2015. Having failed for the second time, NBC fixed another deadline of June 2017, which again was missed.

Challenges persist

While the recent delay has been attributed to the recent change of leadership at NBC, the country is yet to address many of the challenges that had seen the project dragged for this long. A former acting Director-General of NBC, Armstrong Idachaba, was removed by President Muhammadu Buhari, on June 11. Idachaba was appointed acting DG of the Commission, replacing Modibbo Kawu, who was suspended in February 2020. Idachaba was replaced by Balarabe Shehu Ilelah. However, aside from the leadership change, the project continues to face funding challenges. According to industry sources, about N9 billion owed to service providers, including call centre operators and other individuals have not been paid. It was also learnt that Pinnacle, which was supposed to put a secontransmitmittter in Ikorodu to ensure full coverage of Lagos, was yet to install because the equipment has not been cleared at the port due to lack of funds. Experts have also identified the absence of a legal framework, as recommended by the ITU, as a major hindrance to successful DSO implementation. There is currently no law encompassing elements of digitisation or defining roles and responsibilities of the three tiers of government and the private sector

Anticipated DSO gains

Speaking at the Lagos launch, the information minister had stated that the DSO project would create, at least, one million jobs in the next three years. There are also projections that the broadcasting industry and digital economy will grow through increased advertising, revenue from Nollywood and value-added services. Also highlighting the benefits of the project, the immediate past DG of NBC, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba, said the digitisation of broadcasting brings a whole gamut of opportunities for Nigerians. “It is, perhaps, without doubt, the fastest and safest way to leapfrog those at the lower rung up the digital divide. With this rollout in Lagos, a projected five million Lagosians are instantly going to access digital television services, not only for broadcasting, but with converged opportunities to telecom and other ancillary services,” he said. Idachaba noted that jobs would also be created for creatives, engineers and technicians. He added that small-scale business activities were going to be stimulated around the proposition, sale of boxes, installations and content production.

Lack of awareness

While the projected benefits are indeed realisable, industry experts said the lack of awareness about the project would make it difficult for Nigeria to realise the gains of the DSO. In Lagos, for instance, many residents are still unaware of the digital switchover months after it was launched. When asked if he had acquired a set-top box for digital TV, Tope Oladele, a resident of Ikeja, asked: “Is it a new Pay-Tv operator? What are their subscription plans?” For another resident, who simply identified himself as John, even though he read about the digital switchover online, he has no idea of how to get the box. “Even if I know where to get the box today, I still need to know what stations they are offering before I can buy. I have searched for that information online, but I couldn’t get anything,” he said.

Last line

While several countries have achieved full migration years ago and moved on, the dilly-dallying in Nigeria shows a lack of political will. If the country will make any headway in the switchover project, government must take awareness seriously and release the necessary funds to execute a nationwide switchover.

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