By Dominic Omuedi
Heartwarming, it was for me, to read reports of the press conference addressed on Tuesday by Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, on the country’s Digital Switchover (DSO) process, which seemed to have been interred under the rubble of poor conception, mismanagement and corruption.
The cheer brought by the government’s announced intention to reboot the process, positive as appears, has shown nothing beyond the fact that the DSO process is not completely forgotten. No more. No less.
At the press conference, Mohammed unveiled a 13-member Ministerial Task Force to take charge of the DSO process, which, for years, has proceeded in staccato fashion and left the country trailing many others, including in Africa.
Members of the task force, to be chaired by Mohammed, include Armstrong Idachaba, Joe Mutah of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture (Secretary), Dr. Armstrong Idachaba, acting Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC); Olusegun Yakubu of Pinnacle Communications and Toyin Zubair, promoter of the defunct HiTV and now of Inview.
At the press conference, Mohammed announced that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) had approved outstanding payments to key DSO stakeholders, a development he said will remove all the hindrances to the entire process in the past three years. The funding source for the DSO, broadcast industry experts reckon, is from the N34billion paid by MTN for broadcast frequency.
“With the payment approval by FEC, and with 31 states to cover, we have our work cut out for us. We have no more excuses for not rapidly rolling out the DSO across the country, hence my decision to set up a 13-member Ministerial Task Force, which I will personally chair, to take charge of the rollout,” the minister said excitedly.
He added that the government took a decision last year, on account of the financial difficulties induced by COVID-19, that the DSO process will be private sector-driven, effectively cancelling the plan to provide subsidies for Set-Top-Boxes (STBs) or signal carriage.
What followed, typical of pronouncements on the DSO, was a raft of big-sounding and dreamy projections. The DSO, said the minister, will deliver over one million jobs in the next three years, with 50,000 of such coming via local production of 24 million STBs and Smart TVs.
“Not even 20 Set-Top-Box manufacturers can comfortably produce the initial requirements to feed the market. Furthermore, our position in West Africa, coupled with our size, makes us the definite source of these products for the whole sub-region,” he said.
Television production, he said, will create 200,000 jobs, as digitisation will lead to “180 state channels, 30 regional channels and at least 10 national channels”. Digitization, he added, will boost local content propagation and draw many more Nigerians into the business. This, he said will create 400,000 jobs in film production and nudge Nollywood towards subscription Video-On-Demand on STBs and online, thereby providing cheaper distribution means, helping producers to make more money.
The envisaged boom in production, added the minister, will create an additional 200,000 jobs via increase in foreign demand for fully indigenous content and fetch the country in excess of $100 million.
“I have no doubt in my mind that a successful DSO is not just a job spinner, creating over one million jobs in three years, but also a money spinner,” said the minister.
Anyone familiar with the country’s DSO journey will not just doubt the minister’s projections, but dismiss them as drunkenly optimistic, especially given how squalidly it has been managed.
Undoubtedly, poor funding has inhibited the process. But more than that, squalid leadership and ill-conceived strategy are greater inhibitors. For instance, despite the pilot project, with the last roll-out three years ago in Osogbo, Osun State, there is no sustainable Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) coverage even in Plateau, Enugu, Osun, Kwara, and Kaduna states as well as the Federal Capital Territory, which were pilot states. Free TV signals limited to state capitals.
This implies inhabitants outside state capitals are excluded and shows that the broadcast signal carriers selected for the DSO have inadequate technical and financial capacity for effective DTT coverage, the first step in the DSO.
The minister’s near-orgasmic projections on STBs, which convert analogue signals to digital, ignore the fact that the country, for strange reasons, chose a process that builds conditional access (CA) on top of the STBs instead of a standard affordable STB process. This means that the STBs process adopted for Nigeria’s for DSO will be out of the financial reach of most Nigerians. The standard STBs for DSO are supposed to receive free-to-air signal and affordable. Those with conditional access built onto them are similar to pay television STBs and are much pricier. Inview, the company providing the TV system/ conditional access, has already been paid N1billion for running the TV system only in Abuja and Jos.
The company and others involved in the process are understood to have filed invoices for additional sums.
The cancellation of subsidy for STBs, forced on the government by the inclement economic climate, is certain to ensure that the prices of the boxes will stretch users to breaking point. Prior to the devaluation of the naira, for instance, the recommended price STB ranged between N20,000 and N30,000. The boxes used in the roll-out at pilot locations were all imported, with the Federal Government giving the alleged STB manufacturers guarantees to fund the importation to the tune of N5billion.
The inordinately ambitious projection that Nigeria will, within three years, be heaving with locally manufactured STBs is something akin to a boxer’s boast-full of sound and fury.
According to experts, there are only three companies claiming to have STB assembly lines in the country and not a single one is manufacturing. How the few companies, even operating at full capacity, can assemble 24 million STBs over five years is something that has eluded experts, who reckon that it will take a minimum of five years to meet the demand of 24 million users- if all the companies function at full capacity. Importantly, not one of those claiming to have assembly/manufacturing capacities are in operation, meaning that they are engaged in no economic activities and employ nobody, thereby bilking the country through government contracts.
But they are not alone and are actually encouraged by the disposition of government officials, who view funding for the DSO process as “serve yourself,” the local parlance for buffet.
In a March 21, 2019 report published by The Guardian, experts interviewed identified corruption as the main obstacle to the country’s transition from analogue to digital broadcasting. A Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) is on suspension from office and facing prosecution by the Independent and Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) over allegedly fraudulent release of N2.5billion to a private company. The matter, which is before the Federal High Court, Abuja, relates to the 2016 release of N10 billion to the Ministry of Information and Culture for the DSO.
The ICPC is accusing the suspended D-G of using his position to confer a corrupt advantage on his associates in two private companies.
The suspended D-G is alleged to have asked the Information Minister to approve payment of N2.5 billion to Pinnacle Communications Limited, a private signal distribution operator, as “seed grant” for the DSO for which it was ineligible. Mohammed, who was listed as a witness in the trial, claimed he approved the payment based on expert advice given by the suspended D-G. The DSO guidelines, provided by a Federal Government Whitepaper, directed that the process be exclusively managed by companies affiliated to the Federal Government. Based on the guidelines, two companies were nominated for the purpose. One of these was ITS, an affiliate to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), which has no infrastructure of its own and is relying on the one owned by another private operator. It also got N1.7billion as seed grant.
The assumption that our wonky DSO system will boost local content production because it will serve as distribution platform is also one without basis, as International Telecommunications Union (ITU) DSO policy is simply transiting free-to-air analogue signals to digital signal. Thus, Nigeria’s system, with its in-built conditional access system, will rob Nigerians of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to receive information in view of the fact that most free-to-air broadcaster are government-owned. In effect, 90 million Nigerians already living in poverty will be required to buy STBs, movies online and unlimited internet service to access such.
The claim that Nollywood output will benefit from better distribution is also a ruse. Nigerians are already using smart devices through which they access Nigerian creative content online.
Many have also blamed ministerial interference for the corrugated DSO process, arguing that worldwide, the DSO process is driven by the regulator and the industry.
What I have observed since 2015 is a lot of ministerial interference which, in addition to other factors, will leave the country panting to achieve DTT coverage by the time the rest of the world would have moved on a more modern platform, the OTT.
• Omuedi, a retired broadcast engineer, writes from Ughelli