TV goes digital: A viewer’s guide

THE following is an in-depth interview of Transmedia chief executive Mrs Sigudu-Matambo by the Acting Leisure Editor Mtandazo Dube. Read on . . .

Q: In simple terms, what is digital migration?

A: Digital Migration is about transmitting television signals on a different platform, a platform that technically is referred to as frequencies. At present we are transmitting on analogue frequencies, what we call the analogue platform, which is an old way of transmitting television signals to our people. The world is moving from the analogue platform to the digital platform. Most developed countries have, in fact, migrated from analogue platforms to digital signals. So that is what we are doing. I think the emphasis here is that this relates only to television and not to radio. This process (digital migration) is being championed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is a body to which Zimbabwe is a signatory. The ITU is coordinating this process throughout the world so that we all transmit television on coordinated frequencies.

Q: As Transmedia how far have you gone in putting in place mechanisms for digital migration?

A: We commenced this project way back in 2009. We have been making requests for funding from the fiscus. We have been allocated some funding here and there due to competing demands. What we have done in preparation for that (digital migration) is that there is now a transmission site in Plumtree, which was not there before 2009; there is now a transmission site in Beitbridge. We also constructed another site at St Albert’s, up north, Centenary area after Mt Darwin. We constructed a fourth site in Mudzi. Victoria Falls, which was destroyed by a storm in 2009, has been reconstructed.

Those are five sites that we have constructed in preparation for this project. If you notice these are mostly at the periphery of our country in an effort to make sure that we prepare to provide universal access to information via radio and television. In addition to that, as Transmedia we now have equipped 10 sites including Harare, Bulawayo, Masvingo, Mutare and Gweru. These are already digital ready, which means we have already installed the equipment at these sites in preparation for this exercise to digitalise. All in all the country has got 24 sites for television and we are saying 10 are ready. So we have been bidding for funding to deal with the remaining 14.

But let me hasten to say that when we have digitalised the existing sites, the coverage will shrink so it means that we must construct more sites to cover the rest of the country. The plan is to go around the country and see where the coverage will have been affected. I also want to emphasise that the fact that we are constructing new sites is not a digitalisation issue, in that it does not involve removing analogue and putting in digital. What ITU wants countries to do is come June 17, 2015; countries should not be transmitting on analogue frequencies because everybody is moving away from that. So everyone must move at the same time.

If for any reason any country is unable to move away from the analogue to digital, the ITU will not be able to protect that individual country if their signals are interfered with by somebody else. We are required to remove all analogue equipment and replace it with digital – if we don’t do that we don’t have protection. Having done that as Zimbabwe we have a responsibility to our people to check that everyone continues to receive transmission. Engineers have looked into that and have concluded that when that transition takes place there is going to be an issue with coverage and that there will be need to put in place what we call gap fillers to ensure that everyone continues to get signals.

Q: With just four months left, do you think that Zimbabwe is still within a manageable timeframe to make the switch without hiccups?

A: The border areas are critical, we must make sure that they are digital ready, including the sites that are being constructed and that everyone is receiving signals. Because at these border towns or sites we must remove all analogue technology and make sure we are not interfering with any of our neighbours; Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa. Our strategy is to move with the project from the periphery moving in. We have to deal with the issue of compliance, that is, not interfering with our neighbours and them not interfering with us. Digitalisation is done once we have done that.

Then within the country we will broadcast on both analogue and digital, what we call simulcasting, so we will not switch off anyone as long as we do not interfere with anyone. Our people will continue to receive analogue signal within the country while we continue to construct more sites. There is no question of some people being left out in the cold without any signal; we have a strategy of dealing with that. We will simulcast for six months only because we will have six teams working concurrently to construct more sites. We are also in discussions with various system integrators that we want to work with to make sure that the pace is better. What I also want to emphasise is that this is a project that is being managed at national level through the ministry, the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services.

The parties to this project are Transmedia and ZBC, working under the auspices of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe. As Transmedia we are confident that we will meet the deadline, we have done work of this nature before and we know what it takes to do what needs to be done. The ministry is leading the discussions in identifying partners that we may work with to make sure that if at all we don’t have the capacity then there are other people coming in to assist.

There are various Chinese companies, companies from South Africa and some interested parties from France who want to come on board. This is a humongous deal. The Government is of the view that a system integrator could add value because while we are digitalising the television network this is an opportune moment for the Government to renew and revamp the whole network. The project involves transmission; the studios at ZBC, subscriber management systems and content for more than the current two television stations as each transmitter can take up to 20 channels if they are standard definition and six if they are high definition.

Q: What challenges do you foresee arising from this digital migration process?

A: Our major worry is leaving someone behind – switching off when someone still does not have a set-top box. Logistics, we really need to make that people get the set-top boxes before we switch off their areas. We are looking at a phased approach and that is a challenge. We are also concerned that we may not be getting enough feedback from the people on what their concerns are. Through the awareness campaign we can get feedback. We are also concerned about the price of the set-top boxes. We have raised that with our principal at the ministry and our minister is looking into the issue to see if we can give subsidies, how really we can make sure that our people afford these things.

But the problem with subsidies is that you and I may afford the $30, but we will always take advantage of these systems. The subsidies may be rightly targeted at the poorer communities but there are all sorts of manner that these can be taken advantage of by those that can, in fact, afford. Talk about health, education – anything that is for free – you must make sure that it gets to the intended beneficiary. These are mechanisms that need to be worked on and the ministry is seized with that matter.

Q: The issue of set-top boxes has caused governments in other countries serious headaches for various reasons. How are you going to handle this?

A: First let me explain that a set-top box is just a decoder, which decodes (converts) digital signal back to analogue. The Government could not say everybody throw away your analogue television sets, that would be costly. To take care of that, engineers have come up with these decoders which will cost between $30 and $50. If your television set is an LCD-integrated TV or better, that is, digitally ready – then you do not need a set-top box. I urge people, especially those that are buying television sets now, to make sure that they are digital ready. The whole world is moving from analogue to digital – this country needs not be a dumping ground.

There are various manufacturers but as you know the Chinese lead in producing goods that are affordable mostly because they have cheap labour not because the goods are of inferior quality. Even European companies are now setting up plants in China because it is cheap to manufacture there. We are making our orders now. The initial order is a million decoders, but we will bring in more. We have learnt important lessons from our counterparts that we have talked about. By being laggard sometimes you learn from your colleagues’ mistakes.

We are trying to bargain to get the price of set-top boxes to be as affordable as possible. We have people that we will work with, people that will do the work on our behalf. The importation of these things has to be properly managed. We do that to protect our viewers in terms of quality. We cannot allow everyone to just go and get any gadget – technology is changing fast, they may be of inferior quality or expiring tomorrow.

Q: What are you doing as Transmedia to educate the people about digital migration, people who may not even be aware of this process?

A: We have been flighting adverts in newspapers, counting down the months. But now we are going into a full-fledged campaign, which we could not do previously because we did not have the decoders and funding had not been confirmed that it would be available. We have centres as Transmedia around the country with personnel that are resident among the people. Smaller offshoots from our centres will then cover the rest of the country. We will do real road shows, we will drive into the country, go to growth points, districts, provinces – this process begins at the end of this month.

Q: What does this mean for the people who have been watching ZBC on the DStv platform? What does this switch to Zimbabweans at large mean?

A: They are on the subscription platform of multi-choice. Multi-choice as a provider of a subscription service are required by law to carry the national broadcaster on their bouquet. If you have DStv you must watch ZTV 1, which is the national station but you cannot watch all the other channels that ZBC is going to unveil once digitalisation is done. We are now in direct competition with Multi-choice. We want to manage the process of watching television such that if you have not paid you do not watch. There are also economic opportunities that are abound for broadcasters, distributors of set-top boxes, construction of boosters, security at sour sites to avoid vandalism – this is development for our country and our people.

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