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TV in Africa: Digital switchover dreams, multiscreen realities?

Rob Gallagher, Informa Telecoms & Media

Rob Gallagher, Informa Telecoms & Media

On my most recent trip to Africa to speak at the Africacast conference last month, I was struck once again by the region’s ambition.

Home to over 1 billion people and a rapidly growing middle class, Africa has become a focal point of growth and ingenuity for the telecoms industry, highlighted by innovations such as mobile money, dynamic pricing and mobile-app incubation centres.

It is ironic, then, that the majority of the region’s nations will miss one of the most basic targets of the TV-market development – digitisation – so spectacularly.

Like many countries around the world, several African states have committed to the ITU’s goal converting all TV broadcasts from analogue to digital by the end of 2015, in order to free up radio spectrum for other uses.

Given that such spectrum is well suited to providing mobile broadband in rural areas, this will be a particularly useful resource for many African countries where vast expanses lack any form of fixed-broadband infrastructure. The consensus among speakers and delegates at Africacast, however, was that many countries would not even come close to meeting this targets.

Indeed, their views are reflected in our forecasts:

TV in Africa by platform

TV in Africa by platform

I’ve left out the names of the countries for this public version of this article so as not to give away too much of the value that our clients pay for. But I’m sure you’ll agree that the large amount of red representing analogue terrestrial’s share of TV households paints a vivid enough picture of how much many nations have underestimated the challenge of achieving a digital switchover.

The central problem will be getting digital TV sets and set-top boxes into consumers’ homes in markets where people on average live on less than a few dollars per day and analogue sets continue to be bought and sold on a flourishing grey market.

In my presentation, “Rethinking the African multiscreen video opportunity”, I argued that an array of TV-related opportunities will emerge over the next few years regardless of the progress of the various digital switchovers, namely:

  • Ex-pat OTT TV: Low fixed-broadband and smart-TV take up will limit the chances of Netflix-style services in much of Africa. But the economics of over-the-top delivery is opening opportunities for local start-ups such as iRoko to target the African diaspora in wealthier markets with local movies, such as productions from established hubs like Nigeria’s Nollywood – the world’s second-most prolific film industry after India’s Bollywood – and  emerging ones like Zimbabwe’s Zollywood.
  • The first screen redefined: Our forecasts show that for many millions of Africans, a broadband-enabled mobile phone will be their first-video capable device, as opposed to a TV or PC. True, many of these will be feature phones, but many will also be much smarter than those available today thanks to intensifying competition among handset vendors for Africa’s hundreds of millions of low-end customers. Smartphone penetration won’t be too shabby either, with over 141 million connections by end-2017 as US$100-200 and then sub-US$100 devices become more and more available.
  • Second-screen services: Locals’ fever for social networking, the spread of mobile broadband-enabled phones, and the emergence of mobile developer hubs raise interesting possibilities for services that could augment and extend the TV experience. “Social TV” apps that seek to drive engagement, ratings and personalised advertising by linking Facebook, Twitter and other social networks to TV viewing are one obvious application, but some providers are already deploying concepts that could have a more immediate impact on revenues. African pay-TV giant DSTV, for example, is working around the problem of low bank-account penetration with a service that allows users to pay their TV bills via the mobile-money service of mobile operator MTN Uganda.

I won’t pretend that making the most of these opportunities will be easy. Numerous obstacles to success exist today, including high mobile-data charges, patchy mobile-app ecosystems, and problems with obtaining – and defending – content rights to name just but a few.

But overall, I am optimistic that African TV market can show the same spirit of ingenuity that the telecoms market has to work around its limitations – and maybe even turn some of them into opportunities.

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