China Comes To The Rescue On African Digital Migration Deadline

Written by Tom Jackson


Algeria, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda all have one thing in common: digital migration.

These are the countries, in theory at least, that have completed the process of digital migration, the move from analog to digital transmission of TV signals that is designed to free up much-needed spectrum for broadband services.

Fifteen countries, then, have already met the deadline. Not too bad, you might think. Except the initial global International Telecommunications Union (ITU) deadline was in mid-2015. The ITU has since imposed a new deadline of June 2019, according to Mybroadband. But a whole list of countries are still lagging behind.

Senegal hopes to complete its own migration this year, as does Zambia. Ghana says 2019, as does South Africa, though the latter says it will need an additional $500 million to do so. Nigeria is among a group of countries that forecasts that it will fully migrate by 2020.

Worryingly, Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, Mali, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have not even been able to specify when they expect to migrate.

“Some countries are facing financial challenges in implementing the switch-over. For instance, Angola launched a limited digital terrestrial TV (DTT) service in 2016, and had planned a full-scale deployment and launch in 2017, which didn’t happen. The $386 million project will be undertaken by the country’s public broadcaster Televisao Publica de Angola (TPA), and is reportedly hard pressed for funds having raised only 16 percent of the capital requirements for the project by mid-2017,” said Ovum research analyst Danson Njue.

“Botswana on the other hand, has cited challenges in procurement and distribution of set-top boxes as the reasons for the delay in completing the migration. Having missed the June 2015 deadline, Nigerian authorities set mid-2017 as the new deadline to complete the migration process, but that, again, was missed. No new deadline set, but the government has reiterated that it will switch over when it achieves a 95 percent DTT signal coverage. In general, the countries that are yet to complete the migration have blamed the delay on lack of funds, delays in policy formulation and resistance from other stakeholders, among others.”

Problems abound. But never fear, because, as so often happens in Africa, China is ready to come to the rescue. To fill its gaping financial hole, the Angolan government is seeking financial assistance from China to speed its migration process, while Zambia last month launched a Chinese-funded digital television project which will see 500 villages access satellite TV services.

Russell Southwood, CEO of consultancy and research company Balancing Act, says China is increasingly becoming active in the digital TV space.

Star Times as pay-TV operator offers to do the process in exchange for enough space to offer its bouquet. Other Chinese vendors are just part of China’s export drive backed by those irresistible Chinese state bank loans,” Southwood said.

The cooperation between Chinese and African media is in accordance with the Chinese advocacy of One Belt and One Road, an expansive and ambitious economic and diplomatic program that calls for investment in and development of trade routes between China and other parts of the world, in particular with Africa.

It was formalized in 2015 at the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

digital migration
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers his speech at the Summit for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2015. AP Photo

Chinese and African media agreed at the summit to cooperate on African countries migrating to digital, promoting the digitization of radio and TV services to benefit more people in the rural areas in Africa.

But in the very next breath, the partners agreed to “encourage and support the participation of competitive Chinese enterprises of information, communication, radio and TV in building information infrastructure in Africa, such as cable networks and interconnection networks, and their involvement in mutually beneficial construction, operation and offering of services with African businesses in order to assist Africa to build information networks covering the whole continent”, according to People.

Chinese influence in Africa has been a sizeable talking point for many years, but as it moves into the continent’s media space as well, it is expected to become more controversial. The presence of Chinese media and telecommunication companies in Africa is part of Beijing’s “going-out policy”, but a serious intensification of this.

Chinese corporations and state agencies are now getting involved in content production and distribution in Africa, as well as direct investment, like the 20 percent acquisition of the South African Independent Media Group, a multi-platform content company that runs over 20 newspapers and magazines in the country, by Chinese investors.

The down-the-road impact, as China further spreads its bets in Africa, is yet to be felt. But as with roads and other infrastructure being built by the Chinese in Africa, the initial benefits look positive — if more African countries can meet the new migration deadline of June 2019.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.