Full digital broadcasting by 2015
by Bashi Letshididi
With less than three years left before Botswana switches completely from analogue to digital broadcasting, the National Broadcasting Board is in the process of developing a licensing framework for the commercial digital terrestrial television broadcasting services.
The Board has put out a discussion paper to get views of stakeholders on its preliminary positions on some key issues of the licensing framework. A fair amount of ink has been spilled on defining technical terms used in the document to aid comprehension. One such is ‘multiplexing’ which refers to a collection of television programmes, radio and data services that are broadcast together in a digital signal. The other is ‘signal distributor’ which is defined as an entity that operates networks and transmitters and also distributes signals.
Three licensing options for digital broadcasting services are being proposed: vertically integrated licensing, separate licensing as well as combined multiplexing and signal distribution licensing.
A vertically integrated licence would allow a broadcaster to provide content, operate the multiplexer and also carry out signal distribution. The broadcaster owns and operates the broadcasting studio, multiplexers and transmitters. Under separate licensing, the multiplex operator is licensed separately from content providers and signal distributors. Content providers will be granted broadcasting services licences to produce and package broadcasting content.
A separate entity will be licensed to construct the transmission network and lease capacity to various multiplex operators. As regards combined multiplexing and signal distribution, a licensee is allowed to combine the multiplexing and signal distribution and in addition allocated a certain capacity of the multiplexor to carry out its content. The remaining capacity is then leased out to other independent content producers.
The paper says that in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and United Kingdom, the roles of the multiplex operator and signal distributor are combined and granted one licence while in South Africa, commercial broadcasting licensees (free-to-air) have been allocated one multiplexer with an option of selecting a signal distributor or self-providing in signal distribution. “In addition the commercial multiplex operator in South Africa is allowed to utilise 60 percent of the multiplexer for its broadcasting content,” the paper says.
NBB recommends the option of combining the multiplexer and signal distribution with conditions that the commercial multiplexer will be allowed to construct and operate the multiplexer and signal distribution network; that the commercial multiplexer will be allowed to utilise at most 60 percent of the multiplexor capacity for its own broadcasting content, while the remainder will be leased to other licensed content providers in a non-discriminatory and transparent manner; and, that the licensing of multiplexers and signal distributors shall be through a public tender exercise.
The Board is proposing that the quota for local television content should be at least 20 percent within the first five years, at least 40 percent between five to 10 years and at least 60 percent between 10 to 15 years. The Board says it will prescribe an annual minimum quota in the licence conditions to ensure that the five year periodic quotas are achieved progressively.
The Board also recommends application of the concept of “must carry” to the commercial multiplexer operator. The latter will be mandated to carry the free-to-air public broadcasting services channels as maybe prescribed by the regulator. Through this concept, public broadcasting services are made available to all citizens regardless of the platforms they are using.
“If the “must carry” concept is applied the commercial operators will be required to carry out the public broadcasting channels. The main advantage of this concept in areas where it is applied is that it extends the coverage of the public broadcaster to areas where there may be no coverage, and therefore serve the public interest by ensuring that viewers who use cable or satellite as a means of access to broadcasting services continue to have access to public service programming on these commercial platforms,” the paper says.
The process dates back to 2006 when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) held a Regional Radio Conference where a new frequency plan that developed a new digital broadcasting plan was adopted for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Iran. It was agreed that the transition from analogue to digital television broadcasting will start on June 17, 2006 and end on June 17, 2015. Following this conference, Botswana established a multi-stakeholder digital migration taskforce to prepare a digital migration strategy for the country.
“The digital migration taskforce has made recommendations on the best strategy of migrating from analogue to digital. The NBB has received enquiries from potential applicants about the nation-wide commercial television broadcasting licences,” says the paper, adding that consumers indicated through a 2010 audience survey report that they were viewing foreign channels due to the limited variety and options of local television services in various areas.
One key advantage that the paper touts about digital broadcasting is that the signal is so efficient that it can carry multiple television services at the same time, in contrast to an analogue signal that carries only one television service per signal.