Lack of spectrum sharing may slow digital TV, 3G in Zambia

February 20, 2015

Zambian government’s quest to improve broadband service and introduce digital television in the country is proving nettlesome, as telecommunications operators and broadcasters are showing signs of an unwillingness to share spectrum.One of the media analyst I spoke to early this week informed me that some companies needed more spectrum, given that the channels allotted them have hit full capacity. One of the company which I cannot name for obvious reasons currently provides voice, text and data services through two channels allocated to it by Zambian government. However, with more thousands of subscribers consuming an increasing amount of data, the company has repeatedly said that it needed more spectrum to expand third generation service. The company need more spectrum because they have a large number of customers to serve and was keen on occupying the 700 megahertz spectrum, which would allow its towers to provide 3G coverage for a 5-kilometer radius.On the other hand, the 2,100 MHz spectrum, access to which the government plans to auction off anytime soon, could only cover a radius of 3 kilometers.Separately, a mobile network operator senior executive in the country told me that his employer would like to provide the widest coverage so they can provide as much service to their customers as possible, especially those who are living in remote areas.The 700 MHz spectrum is currently used by television stations for analog broadcasts but the international deadline for analogue switch off is June this year.

Zambian Telecommunications operators want the government to assign a different part of the spectrum to broadcasters so they can expand 3G service. Zambian government has previously announced plans to rearrange the spectrum allotted to television broadcasters, requiring them to upgrade from analog to digital, which requires a smaller section of the spectrum, by June 2015.The leftover spectrum could then be auctioned off to telecommunication operators for 3G or 4G telecommunications, which many operators have said was best suited for data hungry customers.Television broadcasters in Zambia, however, have been reticent to go digital, citing costs.Grapevine has it that local Tv networks are facing many issues in going digital, foremost being a potential decline in its number of viewers, who would have to purchase decoders to use their older existing analog television sets to receive digital broadcasts.Lusaka government has not come up with a plan on how to get people in Zambia to accept digital television without subsidizing or paying for decoders. According to researcher working in Lusaka, the Tv network’s viewer numbers would decline if people balked in buying the decoders, which typically cost from US$50 to $100. This would mean that ZNBC and MUVI Tv would not have any viewers to watch their broadcasts. Advertisers would not find them attractive if they had few viewers, and this would affect their revenues.

According to the research he conducted, Tv stations in Zambia that have made a considerable investment in analog broadcast technology would have to allocate funds for new equipment to produce broadcasts.Digitization should take place in big cities first, with smaller cities catching up when they are ready.The government and telecommunications operators must support the shift to digital broadcasts by subsidizing and distributing decoders, among other things.Those who would benefit from this should make a contribution, referring to telecommunication operators in the country where MTN, a subsidiary of MTN Group South Africa and Airtel, a subsidiary of Airtel Group India who dominate the market.The migration to digital broadcasts to provide space for operators is “a win-win scenario” and digitalization would allow the same amount of the broadcast spectrum to be divided among more digital broadcasters, leading to a proliferation of new stations in a country where state broadcaster ZNBC has remained dominant in Tv market.The proliferation of stations would open opportunities for production houses, advertisers and the like to create content for these stations.Mobile operators, too, would benefit, as they would divide the spectrum currently allocated for analog television broadcasts to expand their 3G service.Therefore, both the Zambian government and operators should help broadcasters, especially in the provision of decoders, to facilitate the switch over in a country of slightly over 16 million people.

Contador Harrison