Thursday, March 4, 2021

A technology bluff threatens to take Botswana back to dark ages

For once you get a feeling that politicians are being given all the benefit of doubt.

There is no mention of the word “corruption.” In fact there is a deliberate, almost concerted effort not to use the word.

For many resource people in the room – the mix of which includes telecommunication engineers, regulators, broadcasting experts, technologists and scientists, the word is clearly an anathema.

And what’s more, they all seem set to go an extra mile to demonstrate a rare kind of faith towards politicians.

The result is that a carefully choreographed set of words like “misunderstanding, mistakes, misled, mis-communication and poor coordination” dominate the air.

This is an occasion in Dubai where almost by accident Botswana finds herself occupying a prime time slot over government’s decision to choose a kind of technology option that has taken even the world’s finest engineers by surprise.

And the conference room is packed with seasoned engineers and technologists from all over the world. Like a bad penny for a good proportion of the two-day meeting, Botswana keeps coming back.

Botswana Government’s decision to announce that it will be the only country in the world to adopt ISDB-T technology against the advice of expert advice has in all respects become an elephant in the room.

However hard they try, however objective they determined to be still none of the experts is able to adduce a fact based reasoning why Botswana opted for the kind of technology that they did.

All of them a polite bunch, they are falling over themselves to find more palatable reasons behind Botswana’s odd way out. For these experts, Botswana’s position has been an uneasy undertaking. And it shows. Because it clearly┬á cannot be explained in technology terms which is their sphere of influence, the best way is to go polite, rather than start speculating and even straying into areas on which they have no business, much less expertise.

“As a matter of principle we do not talk about corruption. It will create problems,” one of them politely demurs when pushed harder to say if there is a possibility that a┬á government official somewhere in Botswana might have received kick-backs which might have resulted with the entire government machinery being compromised as to go against the expert advice of its own engineers to adopt ISDB-T against DVB-T.

“It is a mistake. The sooner it is corrected the better it will be for the people of Botswana,” says another engineer in an even more polite tone than the previous one.

While these experts are no doubt trying their best to be charitable to Botswana Government because they believe all is not lost as the country can still re-examine its choice, there is a deep feeling of disappointment which these experts are as a group are unable to hide.

The prickly and instinctively hostile attitude on the part of Botswana Government to anyone (especially the local media) who dared ask difficult questions has not helped the situation.

Botswana Government insecurity on the matter was on full display recently when an entire government communications machinery was thrown at Botswana Guardian Newspaper for daring to start a debate on the matter.

Botswana independent experts, all of them reliant on government patronage and largesse for business survival have recoiled into cocoons for fear of annoying government and jeopardizing their commercial interests.

“It has been difficult to engage with Government of Botswana because no specifics have been forthcoming. In their communication, Botswana government has said their choice has social and economic benefits. Without going into details what those benefits, it is impossible to engage in a debate,” says another engineer.

While conceding that Botswana is entitled to make a technology choice of its own, experts are united in stressing that given Botswana’s peculiar circumstances, especially a small population and an even smaller number of households with television sets, the choice made by government is most likely to prove costly for the consumers.

“An informed consumer is a protected consumer. It is important to tell the people what this all about. It is important to consistently maintain honesty. Viewers should be the centre of all implementation. Has that been the case in Botswana? We do not know,” says a telecommunications regulator from the United Kingdom.

Two months ago Vice President, Ponatshego Kedikilwe launched the Digital Migration process with the switch on of a DTT signal using the new ISDB-T International standard for 8 MHz.

Initially Angola had said it would join Botswana, but has since changed to join the rest of the world in adopting DVB-T technology option.
 
That has caused a stir among the world’s engineering experts that Botswana Government’s decision to go it alone will come at a much heavier cost with no added benefits had other technology option been adopted. Doubts have also been cast on the extent to which Botswana consumers have been informed on the full implications on the decision by their Government.

Peter Siebert, a German based physicist working in the field of broadcasting told the conference that the world over, Botswana has been the only country to adopt ISBD-T running on 8 megahertz.

Dr. Siebert said after a careful analysis he could only attribute the decision by Botswana government to “misunderstanding.”
 
He said the decision by Botswana government will deny television users the benefits that come with economies of scale. He said compared to DVB-T, Botswana’s choice was limited including on functionality.

“Other regions of Africa have chosen to harmonise the transition, with neighbouring countries adopting similar technology so that their people could enjoy the low prices that come with economies of scale. Botswana has a small population with an even smaller number of households with television sets,” said Dr. Siebert.
 
He said it is important that Botswana Government avoids reaching “a point of no return” where going back on its decision might prove even more difficult.

“Please get me right. I am not saying the technology adopted by Botswana Government is not going to work. It will work. But the costs will be too much for the consumer. Producing this technology just for a few users as is the case with Botswana will be expensive.”

Dr. Siebert said he is aware that the Japanese have been very aggressive in marketing this particular technology, including possibly offering political benefits to accompany it.

He emphasized that the other option (DVB-T) which the Botswana Government has spurned offers a much more competitive edge on efficiency, cost and functionality.

These he said converted into enhanced spectrum, enhanced capacity and greater robustness for the user.
Already dominating 70% of the world market, DVB-T allowed for economies of scale which means low prices for the consumer, said Dr. Siebert.

“DVB-T2 is much more robust than ISDB-T. With DVB-T2 there is a cost saving case including on electricity. DVB-T2 is also good on mobile phones including at higher speed of 134 km/h,” said Dr. Siebert.

The fact that DVB-T2 covers both fixed and mobile uses is very important, he said.

He said this kind of technology is ideal for a broadcast network planning to start mobile services as well.

“There is definitely a misunderstanding on the part of Botswana Government what ISDB-T means. For the people of that country it will be good if this technology misunderstanding is corrected,” said Dr. Siebert.

The world has decided to switch broadcasting technology towards digital so as to create more spectrum room and efficiency.
It is expected that once migration is completed there will be more broadcasting channels, more services and less costs.

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