Ghana's TV businesses race towards digital switchover

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Media captionWATCH: Ghana's businesses have mixed feelings as the country rushes to switch from analogue to digital television systems

Television in Ghana is undergoing some radical changes.

The country's communications ministry is embarking on an ambitious project to fully migrate TV broadcasting in the country from analogue to digital by 2013.

This is two years ahead of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) date for global migration in 2015. And it is this hurry that is causing panic among some television operators and stakeholders.

Hard choices

Ken Ashigbey is the managing director of Multi-TV, a satellite TV station which offers ten free-to-air channels via a set-top box. He says he thinks the country has possibly gone down the wrong path.

"Your initial capital layout for DTT [digital terrestrial television] is so heavy, you need to invest in a lot of transmitters. Then it's also dependent on the terrain. So that if you have areas in Ghana where, because the undulating nature of the environment, people are within the shadows of current transmitters.

Image caption The Ghanaian government wants to complete the switchover by 2013

"If you're not able to put in lots of transmitters, what you're going to have happen is that some places will not be covered... Some places will not be commercially viable."

Mr Ashigbey thinks that rather than the DTT system that is being implemented in Ghana, a direct-to-the-home (DTH) solution such as individual satellite receivers, would have been better.

"This would have meant that the initial investment would have been small. The only drawback with the DTH is that bandwidth is expensive.

"But the interesting thing that's happening... there's a lot of satellites that have been launched over Africa. What will happen - supply will increase. Currently we have demand outstripping supply, so the prices are quite high.

Image caption Ken Ashigbey thinks that the government has chosen the more expensive option

"Also, bear in mind there's a lot of fibre optic cables being landed on the coast of Ghana, and a lot of people that used to use satellite are now going by fibre."

Mr Ashigbey also worries that despite the huge capital investment, jobs that could have gone to Ghanaians will end up being done by workers from other countries.

"If you have DTH, you could have trained people to be installers... empowering these people. This would have been jobs for Ghanaians. We should not just create jobs for people outside to come in and take away."

Counting the cost

It is expected that the migration to digital TV will offer a wider choice of channels, higher-quality sound and pictures and spectrum efficiency. This means a single channel can carry a number of programmes, which allows room for spare frequencies to be used for other services.

But there are worries that these benefits could come at a cost - and there is still confusion among businesses about what will and won't still be necessary in the digital world.

Image caption Businesses like this antenna factory are worried about their role in a digital world

Kofi Asamoah has built a small business making and selling television antennas made almost entirely from scrap materials.

He has trained and employed 24 young people from his neighbourhood, many of them from poor homes and unable to pay for schooling.

"Well, I have heard about it [digital migration] and it really scares me.

"I hear that when it starts, there will be no need for TV antennas, and that all that will be required is for a set-top box to be plugged in in homes for reception.

"That frightens me because when that happens, it will seriously hit my business, and not just me, but also all these children you see here. They depend on this job for food."

Mr Asamoah's understandable fears should prove groundless as the DTT system still requires a type of television antenna, but with the addition of a set-top box to convert the signal.

Going local

But he is not the only one concerned about digital migration.

Image caption There are concerns that jobs created in the migration will go to foreign workers

Cosby Bikpe is a trained technician who works at a terrestrial television station in the capital, Accra.

He is also a founding member and manager of Homebase TV, a digital television service provider that aggregates local entertainment content into a channel on a digital terrestrial TV platform.

"There hasn't been that zeal to look out for local talent, I stand for correction, but in this particular sector I think we haven't had government calling for local talent, for local expertise you know to put together some of these things and help in this migration."

"Digital migration is not anything from space. We have people here who can do it. People here who have done it. The most difficult part of television is analogue.

"It's accepting the principal, no one is inventing the wheel, everyone is following the same principal that's been set already. We just need to give our local expertise the opportunity that we give the international guys. That's all we need to do."

Keeping current

Communications Minister Haruna Idrissu, is chairman of the National Digital Migration Implementation Committee, a body set up in December 2010 to ensure Ghana complied with international telecommunications standards.

Image caption Communications Minister Haruna Idrissu says Ghana needs appropriate, not obsolete, technology

"We are particularly worried that Ghana and other developing countries are being used as dumping grounds for redundant technology from the western world, including the UK.

"What we need is appropriate technology, and with much of Europe having switched over we don't want to be swamped with obsolete technology" he says, explaining why the deadline is so near.

Mr Idrissu says local participation is central to the project.

"Government places a greater premium on local participation in this process, for instance our set-top boxes must be assembled in Ghana. That would be one of the requirements.

"And we will be advertising for entities throughout the world who are interested in supporting the Ghanaian government through public-private partnership, to partner with us."

So while major stakeholders still have many doubts, what remains a fact is that Ghana cannot afford to be left behind in this digital revolution that is blooming across Africa, and indeed all across the world.

If the price to pay is a speedy migration from analogue then perhaps the benefits by far outweigh the cost.

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