Tag Archives: digital switchover

What Google Should Do In Africa - Launch a Digital Television Station

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series What Google Should Do in Africa - Part 2

AfricaFlixInspired by the recent successful launch of the Television White Spaces pilot in South Africa, I am once again tempted to engage in providing  mostly unsolicited advice about what Google’s strategy in Africa ought to be.  What I want to propose today is the launching of a Netflix-like streaming television service aimed at African markets and serving African and international content.  In this I take a more radical point of view than I did in my recent post about the Digital Dividend. This idea is borne of two recent experiences, one, some work I did recently looking at the migration process from analogue to digital broadcasting in Africa; and, two, my personal experience with Netflix.

Digital Migration

Most of the industrialised world has made a transition from analogue to digital broadcasting of terrestrial television.  The process in most African countries is much slower.  Because digital broadcasting requires a fraction of the spectrum needed for analogue broadcasting, a transition to digital television broadcasting:

  1. creates space for more television channels;
  2. allows the possibility of broadcasting in High Definition (HD);
  3. makes some spectrum available for other purposes such as broadband; and,
  4. allows broadcasters to keep pace with changes in broadcast technology.

Of the above benefits, I question whether a. and b. are relevant in Africa.  There has always been plenty of space for television channels.  The majority of African countries have four or fewer terrestrial broadcast channels.  As for High Definition broadcasting, it is hard to make either the social or economic case for HD broadcasting.  You could make the argument about Africa not being left behind or given second class technology but frankly I have trouble seeing the real market demand for HD television in the industrialised world, perhaps for sports broadcasting.  HD television feels like the upgrade that manufacturers tell you you want.  Which of course doesn’t rule out HD television via other means such as satellite.  So the real benefit of the switch-over to digital terrestrial broadcasting is the spectrum that is freed up for other purposes such as mobile broadband or TV White Spaces technology, etc.  And if that’s true, then does there really need to be a switch-over to digital broadcasting at all?

Across the continent, the switchover process is not going very well at all.  Very few countries seem to have come up with an effective strategy of how to manage the switch-over let alone finance it.  Few countries have an effective strategy of even how provide everyone with the Set Top Boxes (STBs) that are required to view digital broadcasts if you don’t happen to have a shiny new digital television set.  In South Africa, unspent funds from the Universal Service Agency are being re-purposed for the purchase of STBs for the masses.  The bottom line is that the economics of the transition to digital broadcasting simply don’t make sense.  It is an extremely expensive process for an, as yet, undetermined benefit.  Digital broadcasting is being treated as a giant “build it and they will come” project that will hopefully create both supply and demand at the same time.  And if you don’t buy that, there is always the argument that one must embrace the digital switch-over because it is inevitable.

Most African countries signed an agreement in 2006 that they would commit to the digital switch-over.  The general sense is that you simply have to get on board because analogue broadcasting will soon be obsolete.  It reminds me a bit of the furore a few years ago about the need to move to IPv6 because all the IPv4 addresses were about to run out.  Strangely the sun has yet to set on the IPv4 address space.

So what if there were another option, an option that didn’t exist or seem credible in the near future in 2006 when the switch-over policy decision was taken?  I am referring to Over The Top (OTT) broadcasting or the delivery of what was traditionally broadcast content over the Internet.

The Success of Netflix

Netflix is the most successful example of OTT service delivery.  As of the end of 2012, they claim over 33 million subscribers worldwide, most in the United States.  Not too long after moving to Canada from South Africa last year, I signed our family up for Netflix.  I was unprepared for how cheap and how efficient their service is.  $7.99 per month for all-you-can-eat television is pretty good, by any standard.  In fact, $7.99 looks roughly like mobile ARPU in Africa. People complain about the choice and how up-to-date their offering is but for our family it is the right blend of price and service.  What was even more impressive is how well it works.  We have a single 6Mb/s dry-DSL link that provides all of our household communication including VoIP phone service and Internet.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my kids watching Netflix did not affect the quality of my VoIP phone calls.

Last month, I attended an event at which Netflix’s Director of Cloud Infrastructure, Adrian Cockcroft, spoke.  He further impressed me with just how far and how fast Netflix has come.  One of the first things he said was that Netflix expects to become the largest Content Distribution Network (CDN) in the world some time this year.  That may or may not turn out to be true but just the fact that he thinks it likely is saying something given the likes of Akamai, Level 3 and others.  If you know anything about the distribution of video and other big media on the Internet, you know that it is dependent on CDNs which are gigantic local caches of content.  So when you request that YouTube video in Cape Town, it appears to stream internationally at high speed but actually you’re just getting a local copy from Google’s Global Cache CDN in South Africa.  This makes for much more efficient use of the main arteries of the Internet although how CDNs should be implemented and by who is a subject of much debate.  Netflix have built their infrastructure entirely on Amazon’s cloud infrastructure which makes them a completely virtual organisation.   It impressive just how flexible and efficient at content delivery Netflix are.  No doubt the competition is not far behind them but just to say that remarkable things have been achieved in the last 6 years in both video compression and content distribution.

An Opportunity for Google?

So, a bold move for an African country would be to scrap the digital switch-over entirely and invest all that money planned for a digital broadcast network into broadband fibre and wireless infrastructure to support OTT service provision.  Bold but inconceivable.  I think we all know that that is never going to happen.  The digital switch-over ship has sailed and there is too much money already committed to it.  It is officially too big to fail.  However, that wouldn’t stop a smart company from doing the right thing.

Google already operates its own CDN network in Africa.  There are Google Global Caches in South Africa and Kenya and doubtless other countries on the continent.  It is well-positioned to manage the delivery of content on the continent.  Arguably, as a company, Google understands African media markets better than most international Internet companies having invested significantly over the last 4-5 years in local offices and local talent in Africa.

An African digital television service could be a low-barrier opportunity for new content-makers and a great way to promote thriving national industries like Nollywood to the rest of the continent.  It would be an opportunity to innovate service delivery perhaps creating new super-low-bandwidth options or perhaps overnight updates or local WiFi-based mini-caches of television content.

Are Google the best company to do this?  They certainly have all it takes although it doesn’t mean that someone else might not do it faster and better.  The three takeaway points I want to leave you with are these:

  1. The switch-over to digital broadcasting in Africa is a slow-moving train wreck.
  2. OTT television services are growing faster and more efficiently than you might have imagined.
  3. The combination of 1 and 2 could mean a different television future for Africa.




How To Make The Digital Dividend Pay Out In Africa


Current television spectrum allocation

Digital Divide, Digital Dividend, Digital Yadi-yadah.  You would be forgiven if the term Digital Dividend didn’t immediately resonate with you given the proliferation of all things “Digital” in recent years.  A quick reminder then.  The Digital Dividend refers to the spectrum that is freed up in the conversion from analogue television broadcasting to digital broadcasting, also referred to as the Digital Switch-over (DSO), a change that has largely already taken place in the industrialised world and is slowly gathering pace in Africa.  This involves deploying digital transmitters to replace the analogue ones and either new digital televisions or digital Set Top Boxes (STBs) for existing televisions.  But the fact that more channels may become available or that you can receive television channels optionally in high-definition is less exciting to me than what can be done with the spectrum that is freed up. How much spectrum is being freed up?  There is over 400MHz of television spectrum.

Digital broadcasting uses a fraction of the spectrum that analogue broadcasting does and in Africa, there are few enough analogue terrestrial television channels per country to begin with.  What is more, it turns out that television spectrum exists within a very attractive range of the frequencies. What makes a frequency attractive?  Propagation or the ability of a radio wave to go through obstacles.  The lower down you go down the spectrum, the longer the radio waves and the less they are inclined to bounce off solid objects.   That means that you can cover a larger area with a single transmitter and that means that the cost of building a communication network drops significantly.  There are trade-offs however.  Longer waves carry less information so you can’t pack as much data into the same channel but that is a very reasonable trade-off when it comes to planning rural networks where the cost of network deployment may be a bigger issue than ensuring >20MB/s download speeds. So the Digital Dividend spectrum is extremely appealing from an infrastructure cost-of-ownership perspective.  It is unfortunate then that most of the debate around the Digital Dividend has largely been held within the broadcast community.  Not that digital broadcasting isn’t important but the Digital Dividend is an extremely valuable resource that needs to be considered holistically in terms of its national strategic value.

At the World Radio Congress (WRC-12) last year, there was confirmation of 790-862MHz (popularly known as the 800MHz band) as a global IMT (mobile) band. There was also a move by some African countries to have the 694-790MHz band (popularly known as the 700MHz band) made available in Region 1 (Africa and Europe) on an accelerated basis, probably because there are lots of CDMA players already in the 800MHz band. 700MHz is likely to be confirmed as an IMT band for Region 1 at the WRC in 2015.  So that’s good news for mobile operators except that the release of the 700MHz and 800MHz bands is being treated as contingent on the completion of the DSO.  Given the delays that have plagued the DSO on the continent, this seems like a dangerous strategy.  Why can’t one or both of these two new IMT bands be cleared for use while the DSO is going on in the lower end of the television spectrum?  At the very least, preparatory work for release of this spectrum ought to be going on now.


What a future allocation of spectrum might look like.

But the situation is worse than just a disconnect between the broadcaster and mobile operators.  There is also the prospect of missing out on an alternative access technology that could make a real difference for rural access.  Television White Spaces technology has the potential to create a vibrant rural access industry in Africa.

Television white spaces refers to the guard bands left between analogue television broadcast channels in order to prevent interference. TV White Spaces technology is capable of serendipitously re-using that empty spectrum without interfering with existing television broadcast. The initial vision was that through spectrum sensing, the devices would automatically use whatever empty spectrum was available, as a secondary user. That means if a television signal suddenly turn on in a frequency being used by a TV White Spaces device, it would automatically cease using that frequency and find another empty frequency to use. The broadcast and wireless microphone industry in the U.S. were not satisfied with this solution and the concept of an geo-located authentication database was introduced whereby TV White Spaces devices would need to authenticate against a spectrum database to see what spectrum was available for use in the area it was being used. Very low power TV White Spaces devices are still allowed to use just spectrum sensing. In general TV White Spaces regulation in the US has been the victim of massive lobbying and the result is some extremely hamstrung regulation.

The UK has largely followed the US regulation with one significant improvement. The power output level of the devices is not fixed but can be dictated by the settings in the authentication database. This means that higher power output levels could be assigned in sparsely populated rural areas versus areas where there are many other spectrum users.

What is exciting about this technology?

  1. No spectrum license required or at least a very nominal one. This means new opportunities for small entrepreneurs to provide alternative access.
  2. Great propagation. A typical TV White Spaces link can go 8-10km without any effort and is not obstructed by trees, buildings, etc.
  3. Innovation. WiFi has gone from a niche spectrum for experiments to an industry that is expected to be worth over 6 billion dollars in 2015. ~70% of smartphone data traffic in the rich world goes over WiFi. This is what open spectrum offers. TV White Spaces has the potential to be another such industry because of the low barrier to entry.
  4. No spectrum re-farming required. Because TV White Spaces technology is designed for secondary use of spectrum, there is no need to move the primary spectrum holder. This is a quick and easy win. Conflicts can be easily resolved by the regulator thanks to the authentication database.

TV White Spaces are finally gaining traction however.  Google is sponsoring a pilot in South Africa and in Kenya, Microsoft are supporting a pilot in partnership with the Kenyan government and a satellite operator there.  Those are good signs but in general the discussion of the Digital Dividend has been trapped in bureaucratic silos.  There needs to be a broader acknowledgement of the strategic value of the Digital Dividend and a strategy that addresses it holistically.