Analog-to-Digital TV Migration in Ghana and West Africa: K-Net, DTH and DTT Solutions Provider

Oscar Nichor talks about K-Net’s experience in building Ghana’s DTT (digital terrestrial television) network and explains what strategy K-Net can replicate in other countries, particularly in West Africa and the ECOWAS, to help establish a cost effective and reliable DTT network in good time.

Interview with Oscar Nichor, Chief Operations Officer (TV Broadcast) at K-Net

Oscar Nichor, Chief Operations Officer (TV Broadcast) at K-Net

K-Net as a Ghanaian company has been taking up the challenge to build Ghana’s DTT network. What has the experience been like?

It has been a very winding road, but we are proud of what we have been able to do. Given the fact that the whole process started in 2010, from the first tender that was advertised, responses came from companies outside of Africa. After about four years, nothing followed. Meanwhile, migration was a timebound event given by the International Telecommunication Union. The migration process was set to end in June 17, 2015, but getting close to that deadline, Ghana was still in doubt as to when it would even start. So, a decision was made to invite new tenders and redefine the process, making it a must for whoever won the contract to work within an earlier timeframe than the previous one. By this time, K-Net had also tested itself because it had been providing services to broadcasters using a DTH (direct to home) platform that was able to give capacity for their program distribution. The national broadcaster for example, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, had 30 sites in the country and they were linked or hooked up to the studio output using a satellite capacity that was provided by K-Net. Soon, others followed. K-Net already had experience in serving the broadcasters in the analog regime, so why not extend it into the digital regime. So, K-Net looked at the other request for proposals and thought that this was something that we could do. Other manufacturers and companies outside of Ghana also bid. It has not been an easy path, but our offer was very good. For example, there are a lot of things that were not even in the RFP (request for proposal) but that we made offers on, such as the advice on some financial strategies that could help. Eventually, this was the model that was used and it was an idea that came from K-Net. Now, our involvement as a local company has been very helpful in making Ghana move forward. We are here and in close proximity. It has not been easy, though. In terms of stability, there are a lot of changes during the migration period. If there is one administration at the processing stage and then a new administration comes in, then it wants to understand what is going and things have to start all over again. But, because of our proximity, there was always a very quick invitation, we came in for a meeting, asked what can we do, showed where we are, they gave us a briefing, etc. It would not have been the same with a foreign company at all. We have also been very patient. There are a lot of things that we were called to do on very short notice and we had to mobilize our own resources to get certain things done. I would not say that it has been an easy road because of the instability, but the achievement is there for everyone to see and we are proud of it.

What is DTT?

DTT stands for digital terrestrial television. There are many technologies employed in broadcasting. Digital terrestrial television involves transmitters on the ground that are able to radiate radio waves which people pick up with their normal TV and normal antenna, either on the rooftop or on top of their TV in the room. DTT became a technology en vogue in Africa because even in the analog regime, a majority of African countries traditionally received television services this same way. We decided that if we were going digital, then we should still provide the same reception modes to enable people to have the same kind of experience that they had in the analog days and not struggle for reception.

What values have been derived from you being a local company to develop DTT networks for Ghana?

K-Net has garnered experience from what it has done in Ghana. We would be able to provide within a very good timeline a very reliable system that has built-in reliability, the cost would be much more affordable compared to any other company doing the same thing and the facility would look first class.

The proximity has helped, as well as the fact that, as a local company, we understand the industry and know the developments in the industry and what to do even beyond a contractual obligation in order to help Ghana migrate harmoniously. So much of that has been done. If you look at where we are, K-Net, being a local company that had been involved with serving broadcasters in Ghana over a period, has also looked across to see what is pertaining in other African countries and realized that Ghana wants to put up a first-class facility. To do that, you need to compare what is on the ground and then come up with the class that you want to offer. So, as a local company in Ghana and trying to place Ghana on the map, it would have been different if it were not a Ghanaian company. Apart from that, there have been very regular interactions and it is all because we are stationed right here and it does not cost much to make an approach or a suggestion. So many things could not have been foreseen and they were suggestions that came from K-Net to enhance what we have now. In terms of robustness of the network in particular, we observed over a period of time and proposed some changes or additions that were not originally included. These were core variations. Some of these suggestions are still being seriously considered, but we also understand that what is important is the migration deadline. The first thing is to migrate and then scale up to the enhancements that we think we are capable of introducing to add more excitement.

Because this is the first time this has been done, you had to bring in foreign consultants which has led to the development of local and requisite human resources. How do you assess this?

That is also a very important element of the local industry. It would have been very difficult if Ghana had decided that as soon as the infrastructure was put in place it would let some broadcaster group or consortium take over and run it. They would have needed an expensive amount of training arrangement in order to develop their capacity. But K-Net is a Ghanaian company and works with Ghanaians. In addition to that, it has also provided training to some of the local broadcasters because we understood that for us to achieve a seamless process of serving broadcasters, they needed to understand the process itself first. So, we engaged some of the broadcasters. This is something that you normally would not get from a foreign company.

What strategy can K-Net replicate in other countries, particularly in West Africa, to help establish a cost effective and reliable DTT network in good time?

If not for the instability in the administrations that were providing the kind of funding and lead for us to get this job done, it could have been done very quickly. This has also become an experience which has been improved upon. If we were to provide the same kind of service for another African country, we would go with all the facets of the project that would bring the total satisfaction straight away. Then, we would make ourselves available because we understand that proximity and continuous discussions to facilitate the achievement of the project execution are very important. Since we are in Africa, the cost is lower for us to move around and to station our people. We understand now that it is very important to make yourself available at the point of project execution. In capacity development, we have seen what it takes to make projects work in Africa. I was working for the National Broadcaster and I was in charge of projects for many years. I came from a training background and I had been in charge of engineering training before and I had an idea about the strategies that you need to put in place in order to ensure that projects succeed. But it has not been easy because in Africa very little resources are allocated to training. If the company that is executing itself is committed to providing capacity, that is an added advantage. We are looking at Ghana being a pacesetter because we are the only native West African company that is able to do this. We have built our expertise from A to Z.

What should a country wishing to contact K-Net to provide a DTT solution expect? What would be the tangible benefits for these countries to migrate to digital?

K-Net has garnered experience from what it has done in Ghana. We would be able to provide within a very good timeline a very reliable system that has built-in reliability, the cost would be much more affordable compared to any other company doing the same thing, they should expect that K-Net will leave them with a very highly developed human capacity to continue to run the system, and, of course, the facility would look first class. For ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), just like for any other part of the world, digital migration brings a lot of advantages. For example, in the area of content provision we now have space to air or sell content. For many years, though, African countries have limited their market to their own localities and it has not helped because we have become markets for others but we are not benefitting from that global market. With digital, it is not going to be something that you are planning to do, but you will be pushed to want to monetize your content. You will have to put some kind of quality in the content so that it can sell so you can develop more. If you do not sell content, you cannot continue to do content business. Now, we are beginning to be able to also participate in the content market. This means that the disadvantage for many of the stronger broadcasters of telling the African story will be a thing of the past because now, through that idea of marketing your content, you will be able to sell your news, sell your cultural programming, and also have a chance to provide this ability to so many of the African kind of content. The second benefit is that the administrations in Africa are beginning to understand digital dividends. Broadcasting in the analog regime was taking up too many frequencies. Today, broadcasting does not need so many of the frequencies and the frequencies that have been released or that would be released are being auctioned and generate a lot of money. If we all understand that we need to support content production, there will be enough funding from here to push local content development. It will make the African broadcasters be in the market now and step up the kind of technologies that will make their content also sell in Europe. Fortunately, what K-Net has done for Ghana is scalable to a support entity. The idea was based on the fact that most of the broadcasters do not have HD studios, so if you were going to start with HD, they were going to be paying for something that there would be very little benefit from at the outset. Now, it has been made open for them to be able to do this. The first step is that they have the opportunity to develop HD content and they put some money behind it to make it good. We know that the scale for developing good content is there but accessing resources has been difficult. With digital dividends, we should be able to provide some support from whatever we derive in order to enable us to compete on the international market. If we are not seriously supporting the content development, we will have difficulty in meeting the local content quotas. Everybody in Africa is now beginning to talk about a quota for local content. Even if it were 40%, it is better than the 10% or 20% that we have done over the years. Then, we can continue to grow and we can derive the full benefits of broadcasting in Africa. Because of the different stages of development of the ECOWAS member countries, it was not possible to make certain decisions before now. But it is easier now since they had a meeting recently and decided to align the technologies so that if you were going to produce set top boxes in any of the ECOWAS countries, you will have a big market for this kind of business. It will bring employment, the pricing will be lowered for all of us, and it will be a kind of experience for us standing as individual nations. In Ghana, for example, it is projected that we have about 8 million TV sets, or 8 million TV households. If that will be the case, not everybody is going to use set top boxes. Some have the resources to go and buy digital TVs directly. So, if 40% buy digital TVs and 60% use set top boxes and we are bringing in machinery to produce set top boxes for a small market like that, if you satisfy that market, what next? The business is much more meaningful if you have a bigger market. We are a big subregion so if we align our technology so that a set top box in Ghana can also work in Burkina Faso, Togo, or the rest of the neighboring countries, then we will have a bigger market for the production of set top boxes. It will bring a number of benefits such as cost, employment, and maybe it will bring us more together in cooperation.


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