Digital transition in broadcasting has the potential to improve both the quantity and quality of what is available on TV and to increase the number of people who will be able to watch it. The items below offer a short primer in the basics of the technical issues and a look at the wider policy issues.
Behind the issue
What is the digital transition in broadcasting?
The digital transition in broadcasting is a global process involving the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting signals. There are a number of countries who have completed this transition and many more who are making the transition.
Who decided the digital transition should happen?
Because the process of the digital transition in broadcasting involves re-allocating frequencies, it is agreed by the International Telecommunication Union’s Regional Telecommunication Conference (RRC). African countries are committed to migrating to digital broadcasting by June 2015.
Is the digital migration standard the same across the world?
No. Different regions use different standards much as they do for analogue television transmission.
What will it cost?
This digital transition in broadcasting will be a costly process (both for Government and citizens) and it is currently unclear who will benefit from it or where the resources needed to make the transition will come from. There are costs for digital production equipment, for digital transition equipment and for set-top boxes and digitally-enabled TVs.
What are the differences between analogue and digital broadcasting?
There is a worldwide transition to digital broadcasting which is a more efficient way of transmitting sound and pictures and which offers a number of potential benefits.
Who is affected by the digital transition?
The transition from analogue to digital impacts television viewers, media companies and TV channels in different ways.
What are the direct benefits and difficulties of the digital transition?
New spectrum for broadband wireless.
Because the digital broadcast signal can be compressed, spectrum can be freed up and this can be sold to communications operators who want to provide better wireless broadband services.
Better picture and sound quality
Television viewers will get improved picture and sound quality. However, those at the edge of signal coverage areas who currently get a poor quality signal will with digital signals get no picture at all. In the future, broadcasters will be able to offer High Definition (HD) programmes to their viewers.
Possibility of more channels
Because of better compression, broadcasters will be able to offer several channels of programming in spectrum that previously was only able to transmit a single analogue channel. Therefore viewers are likely to be offered a wider range of channels subject only to the broadcasters finding a business model to make the channels financially viable.
Extending coverage in vernacular language
Digital broadcasting offers the possibility of more channels which can include those in vernacular language.
Extending the transmission coverage area
The digital transition provides the opportunity to extend the signal coverage area within a country so that more people can share the same television programmes.
The cost of the set-top boxes
The challenge for African Government and regulators is that the digital transition contains a number of potential negatives: the biggest hurdle is the cost of set-top boxes to receive digital TV signals. In order to get digital transmissions, their citizens will either have to buy a set-top box (usually around US$50) or a digital television (which can be upwards of US$300 at the lower end).
Paying for new channels
Furthermore, new TV channels will have to be paid for, by consumers themselves (through Pay TV subscriptions), by the Government (through the state broadcaster) and by advertisers (through new Free-To-Air channels). Although with the right incentives African governments can increase investment and jobs in the local TV sector.
What are the potential indirect benefits and difficulties of the digital transition?
Re-shaping public interest broadcasting
The digital transition raises questions around on who will get access to the new channels created. It offers a moment to reflect on what African public interest broadcasting might be and the business models that could be used to underpin its public interest purposes.
Creating local content
The digital transition offers an opportunity to review the effectiveness of local production quotas and of Government schemes that support local production.
The implications of convergence
Broadcasting and telecommunications are in many African countries treated as separate, vertical markets. However, digital convergence means that telecoms operators have become involved in broadcasting and broadcasting companies are looking at how they might deliver Internet and voice services.