Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Botswana’s ignorance stalls digital migration

BY BONNIE MODIAKGOTLA

The Minister of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration Nonofo Molefhi this week admitted that Botswana is facing great difficulty in migrating from analogue to digital.

Molefhi admitted this at his meeting with Akinihiko Miyamoto, the director general of Global ICT Strategy Bureau of Japan.

His revelation was that digital migration was not going according to plan due to Botswana’s choice of technology, which now makes it the only country in Southern Africa that had chosen the Japanese technology over the commonly used European technology.

This is now costing the country more money as the digital migration project fails to take off -three years after the set deadline.

The main challenge for the government has been the supply of set top boxes which would have allowed Batswana to migrate to the digital spectrum. Molefhi says importation and distribution of set top boxes was expensive.

“In this regard, in terms of the economies of scale, had Botswana adopted the European Standard like her counterparts in Southern Africa, she would have been in a position to collaborate with other countries to import bigger volumes to make economic sense in bringing prices down,” the minister said.

The minister’s remarks do not come as a surprise as the country was warned many times about adopting Japanese technology instead of the European platform during the digital migration. All countries were requested by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to ditch analogue for digital transmission. ITU had set the deadline for 2015.

While other Southern African countries (SADC) decided to adopt the European standard of digital migration, the Digital Video Broadcasting- Terrestrial (DVB-T2), Botswana decided to go with ISDB-T, the Japanese platform. Botswana’s choice surprised many as the Intergraded Services Digital Broadcasting-Terrestrial (ISDB-T) was only adopted by few countries (South American countries, Japan, Philippines and Thailand) while the DVB-T2 remained the most popular standard worldwide.

The Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association (SADIBA) in 2013 warned Botswana that by using the Japanese platform, the digital migration will be more expensive compared to the DVB-T2.

“The radio frequency channel bandwidth used in Africa is 8 MHz and not 6 MHz as is the case in all the countries in which ISDB-T has been deployed. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the mass produced ISDB-T devices available and those required for Botswana,” SADIBA warned, also adding that that unique chipsets and ISDB-T receivers would need to be developed exclusively for Botswana.

However, the government ignored the advice and instead argued that the ISDB-T technology was the best to use. By 2013, Botswana had already spent P160 million on the digital migration.

Even by then, cracks began to emerge with traces of corruption. The Botswana Guardian, a local media paper, reported that some local companies were handpicked to manufacture and distribute the set-top boxes needed for the digital migration, ignoring the usual tender process. The paper revealed that some local companies had partnered with Japanese companies to manufacture the devices, pointing to insider trading and prompting the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) to investigate the digital migration.

By 2015 – the year of the deadline, Mogomotsi Kaboyamodimo, the then deputy permanent secretary in the office of the president defended the decision adding, “manufacturers are not bound by one standard or another, they simply supply to customer requests. Botswana satellite services will not be affected in any way and so there is no question of isolation in terms of Botswana not being able to communicate with the rest of the world or content and technologies from elsewhere failing to work in Botswana.”

The following year, 2016, the government was still vehemently defending its choice of technology. Philip Makgalemela, the then assistant minister of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, told parliament that the decision to choose ISDB-T was based on the outcome of a comparative assessment and evaluation of technical and performance capabilities of the two standards.

He also revealed that the set-top boxes were not yet available in the local market, adding that the government was working around the clock to ensure that the devices can be sourced locally, as well as facilitating their availability in the local retail market, and put the target date as June 2016.

In 2017 the then minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Eric Molale revealed to parliament that government has already spent over P180 million compared to the P130 million that was initially planned for the excise.

From the amount, P70 million was spent on procuring 45 digital transmitters and Satellite Appling System, P25 million on Botswana Television (BTV) studio facilities upgrade, P33 million on acquisition of content and P17 million on public campaigns and outreaches.  Over 9,500 set-top boxes had been acquired, with the devices mostly given as handouts to raise awareness and market the digital transmission at a cost of P15 million.

Also contributing to the huge P180 million bill was the upgrade of Transmitter Calling Systems which gobbled P18 million, while the procurement of vehicles that carries the equipment cost P2 million.

While Molale said the intention was to be completely done with analogue by end of 2018, recent developments point to a failed project. It is now clear that the government’s blunder to ignore advice, similar to the Morupule B, will cost the government more money to fix. Meanwhile, concerned citizens have called for intensive investigations regarding the digital migration.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.