The analogue switch-off in Mzuzu and Zomba scheduled for Wednesday is expected to affect 11 districts across the country, Ministry of Information, Tourism and Culture officials have disclosed.
The districts to be affected include Mzuzu, Mzimba, Rumphi and Nkhata Bay in the Northern Region. In the Southern Region, it will affect Zomba, Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka, Liwonde, Ntcheu, Neno and Chiradzulu.
The scene for the analogue switch off will be Lamya Telegraph Hill in Mzuzu and Zomba’s transmitter site up in the mountain.
Digital Migration project coordinator in the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Culture Dennis Chirwa says it means those who will not have acquired set-top boxes in these districts will not be able to watch television come Wednesday.
“On this day, the analogue switch off will have nullified the use of aerials for television. We will have switched over to the digital platform which only uses set-top boxes for television viewing. As such, only those who have a set-top box will be able to watch television,” Chirwa says.
This means for people to watch television they will need to have a GOtv decoder or government’s set-top box being sold by the Malawi Digital Broadcasting Network Limited (MDBNL) in post offices nationwide.
Those who have MultiChoice’s DStv decoders have nothing to worry as DStv is already in digital format. So, too those with Zuku TV and Star Times as both are also in digital.
However, there are fears that there might be confusion as government has not done enough civic education to prepare Malawians for the switch.
Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) executive director John Kapito is vocal in his criticism of government for failing to raise awareness among the public on the issue and has labelled the whole process as a failure.
Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) has been conducting a series of workshops with stakeholders, including traditional leaders and journalists to ensure smooth transition from analogue to digital.
Chirwa says civic education is not a one day affair, but a process that takes a long time: “How long have we been educating people about HIV and Aids? We have already started civic educating people on digital migration and we will continue doing so until the message sinks in.”
The second phase of digital migration will take place on September 17, three months after the first switch off.
“On September 17, the switch-off will affect Blantyre and Lilongwe. The 90 days in between would be used to observe the challenges that will arise and how to deal with them. So, it will be a learning process for us so that we are ready for the national switch off,” he said.
It would seem the introduction of many players on the digital platform has worked to the advantage of customers as the price of set boxes continues to go down.
The Star Times decoder is the cheapest at K5 000 (US$11) while the GOtv decoder is selling at K16 999 and the government set-top box is selling at K20 000 (US$45). Zuku TV, on the other hand, has its decoder pegged at K28 000 (US$63).
But Chirwa contends that despite the wide range of choices, only the government-owned MDBNL set-top box offer the best service in terms of value returns because there is no monthly subscription for the channels.
“Unlike the other service providers where you buy the decoder or set-top box, you have to pay monthly subscription every time to have pictures on your television. With the government set-top box, there are no monthly subscriptions, but people will enjoy continuous services for years to come,” he says.
The government set-top box has 12 channels: MBCtv, Luso, Timveni, Good News Broadcasting System (GBS) which is Korean, Zodiak, Luntha, CAN, Hope Tv, Joy, Calvary and MDBNL, which is a promotional channel.
Chirwa, while admitting the shortfall, explains that government has left the antennae market to other players to ensure that there would be no monopoly on the digital migration market.However, the government set-top box has one shortfall in that the package has run out of antennae supplies.
“As government, we want to adhere to free and fair competition rules which are against monopolising business. This is why we have liberalised the market so that other players can supply the antennae. People can buy the antennae from any electronic shop in Malawi,” he says.
Chirwa said government is also in the process of establishing a toll-free number which would be used as a call centre to allow those who have queries on any technical problems arising from the digital migration equipment in their homes.
“The toll-free number will function like a call centre where those who are experiencing problems in terms of pictures, sound or any other technical problems will be assisted. The toll-free number will be given to the general public before Wednesday,” he said.
MultiChoice Malawi sales and marketing manager Chimwemwe Nyirenda said they are happy to partner with government on the digital migration process and will be ready to supply antennae and GOtv set boxes where they are needed.
“We have not only made available enough antennae for digital migration, but we also have enough set-top boxes for everyone in all the districts that will be affected in the first phase of the switch off,” he said.
In essence, what is coming on Wednesday is not really a blackout, but rather something better than what was there previously. The switch from analogue to digital comes with more benefits to viewers.
Digital broadcasting brings high resolution pictures that are bright and perfect with quality sound without interferences. It also offers more choices to viewers because with just one set-top box, there are more channels to choose from.
Digital Migration also brings technological advantage to other sectors. Since a digital signal carries much more data and channels in a single frequency, this efficient utilisation of channels reduces the number of frequencies required for the broadcasting sector. As such, digital broadcasting will free the air for technological uses especially in telecommunications.
In fact, this is the reason why international telecommunications union agreed in 2006 to migrate from analogue to digital with June 17 set aside as the deadline for the switch. Countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania already made switch over to digital.