The Sun News

A call for introspection on digital switchover

By Ayo Yakubu 

Television broadcasting is of so much importance to citizens and the Nigerian state as a means of national integration and cultural development in a fast-paced global arena which is driven mainly by communication technology. Nigeria has fallen far short in its bid to catch up with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) standards in terms of quality and timing in switching over to  digital broadcasting.

Whereas Nigeria has missed more than two deadlines in the digital switchover process to the disappointment of many Nigerians and ITU, what has become more embarrassing is the claim by Mr. Tony Dara that the transmitters installed by ITS have been discontinued by the original equipment manufacturer more than ten years ago. Dara, an acclaimed broadcast engineer who had acted as a consultant to the National Assembly on Nigeria’s digital switch over, brought this fact to the public sphere and the famed Nigerian factor has begun to set in.

Responding to the finding on installation of obsolete transmitters that have been discontinued by the original equipment manufacturer, Integrated Television Services (ITS) General Manager, Rotimi Salami did not contradict the finding but instead confirmed that the transmitters were indeed “commercialised in 2008” and sought to rationalise using them on the “room for backward integration” existing in broadcast technology which he nevertheless described as “very dynamic…innovations are made at an alarming rate”.

Even before the now unavoidable legislative inquiry into the shocking findings of Tony Dara, the  Integrated Television Services (ITS) had owned up to installing broadcast equipment  that were commercialised  nine years ago in the Jos pilot project centre. The NTA subsidiary put out an advert supposedly “to expose the fallacies and outright falsehood” in the Dara Report in which it ended up confirming the veracity of the finding.

With this adherence to the retrograde culture of backwardly integrating into broadcast technology, it should not be surprising that ITS is  launching Nigeria into the digital age of broadcasting using obsolete transmitters just to ensure that the “other room” of backward integration vacated by fast changing technology is not left empty!

Let the rest of the world strive to keep pace with the innovations and dynamism of digital signals broadcast,  while Nigerians  make do with antiquated modems so that the technical epilepsy associated with  electricity supply will be transferred  into our broadcasting infrastructure’s  “compatibility” hardware.  It was the same  surrender to stagnant development that led ITS into the retention of old buildings and facilities to house the DSO in Jos and Ilorin, another flaw identified in the Dara Report that it has  failed to debunk.  According to ITS GM, there was no reason to even consider new buildings for the DSO process because nine years ago, the White Paper on DSO recommended that the “existing and massive” broadcast transmission infrastructure of the NTA, VON and FRCN should form the backbone for the new broadcast signal distributor.

Again, to add pseudo-savvy  to this situation, it declared  that “a building does not determine the quality of transmission, rather (sic) it is the state of the equipment”. This evidently cannot be technically applicable to a backwardly integrated compatibility-chasing choice of obsolete equipment that will be depending on perpetual coupling and combinations to deliver digital output from analogue inputs! What would it have cost to put up new buildings designed with the spatial and other specifications suitable for workflow in the DSO which is not comparable to the decades old analogue equipment “existing” in NTA?

It is unfortunate that these are the untenable responses that ITS gave in its attempt  to  defend its decisions.  The crux of this disturbing matter is that over N1.7 billion was collected by the NTA-ITS from federal government coffers specifically as take-off grant for the DSO pilot project! With such a humongous budget, why should the project be relying on discontinued obsolete equipment when at every material time there were latest successor models of the digital transmitters by the same manufacturer which are in fact future-assured technology and not the  discarded systems used? Does Nigeria have to wait endlessly before it can catch up with the rest of the world in digital broadcasting?

It is also intriguing that the industry regulator, National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC),  which is charged with monitoring and supervising the broadcast industry in Nigeria has so far maintained a loud silence while the ITS scandal unfolds. NBC should have been the first to identify any deviation from set standards and impose the necessary regulatory sanctions to ensure compliance, especially at the critical stage of commencement of the DSO. The only conclusion  from this is a possible collusion on the installation of the obsolete equipment  as well as its cover-up during and after the celebrated launching of the Jos pilot project.

An indication of the role of the NBC – was given the other day on Channels TV when Armstrong Idachaba, the NBC director specifically charged with the monitoring of broadcasting erased any doubts about the Dara Report findings  and the implication that his organisation failed to perform its fundamental duty of monitoring and regulating the very first official roll-out of the DSO in the Jos Pilot Project .

Confronted with the Dara Report’s shocking revelation that ITS commenced the implementation of the DSO in Jos by deploying equipment that have been discontinued by the original equipment manufacturer, Mr. Idachaba  declared  that  ITS  is more competent to respond and even offered contact details for Channels TV to “bring them in and let them explain”. In other words, NBC as the government regulatory agency in broadcasting and the DSO in particular, could neither deny nor confirm that ITS actually rolled out obsolete analogue equipment for the Jos pilot digital switchover project!

Mr. Idachaba had earlier bragged that “Jos was a fantastic experience for NBC”, that “all the theorising and planning we did regarding framework for DSO we had a chance to implement in Jos” and crowed about how the local people in Jos were enjoying digital terrestrial television free of charge on 30 channels. He obviously was not expecting to be asked about the Dara Report and had to admit that ITS had not met the 30 channels requirement and had still not covered the entire Plateau State (not even the entire Jos township according to Dara Report), since the fanfare launch in 2015 in violation of the timelines set by the NBC.

The NBC cannot feign ignorance of the damning revelation of the Dara Report without admitting deliberate negligence to perform its statutory responsibility as government regulator of the broadcast industry. Mr Idachaba’s refusal on national TV to give  a transparent response to the Dara Report as NBC’s head of broadcast monitoring is not good enough.

Against the background of several  failures of NBC to meet set deadlines for the project launch in the last five or more years, the  conduct of the regulator in the “pilot” plus the weighty material evidence of the Dara Report should convince the federal government to fully investigate this matter.

It is, therefore, necessary to urge the federal government to revisit and expand the scope of the initial investigation by the EFCC that resulted in the sacking and arraignment of the former DG of the NBC.

It is quite clear now that it is not only the handling of the contracts for set top box “manufacturers” that was riddled with financial irregularities and violations of due process but also the entire process of implementing the DSO. Indeed, even the manner

the licence holder, NTA, was hijacked and subjugated in the pay TV sector calls for a thorough investigation.

The House of Representatives Committee on DSO should take the lead by concluding its investigations and releasing a report of its findings. Sad it is that the jinx that has bedevilled our DSO since 2014 remains a cog in the wheel of progress in 2017. Now that we know where the problem comes from, we stand a better chance of eliminating it once and for all. The revelation by Tony Dara is one of the best things to ever happen to DSO in Nigeria.

 

Yakubu is a Legal/Govt Affairs Analyst, [email protected]

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