When MultiChoice Africa approached Ethel Siliwanlisa to include her household in the trials of digital terrestrial television (DDT) signal transmission technology in South Africa, a sense of fear locked her mind.
She feared the cost of using the new broadcasting technology and receiving television signals. She thought she would need to replace her TV screen with a flat screen.
How to operate her TV gadgets to watch television channels on the new digital platform and perceived technical hiccups of trying a new technology were other disturbing thoughts that went through Siliwanlisaâ€™s mind.
Today, Siliwanlisa is proud to be among 60 DTT trialists in Johannesburgâ€™s Soweto Township. She is using her same old TV screen to watch digital TV channels. She only needed a new digital terrestrial decoder and antenna (not dish) to receive DTT signals.
â€œAt first, I did not believe that I could watch something different from what I had. My TV is now different. It is also easy for me to operate it,â€ says Siliwanlisa, who was lucky to get MultiChoice TV subscription, terrestrial decoder and antenna for free as a DTT trialist.
Siliwanlisaâ€™s experience is part of the wave of digital migration around the world. With digital migration, broadcasting of television signals in all countries is changing from analogue to digital terrestrial (tower) transmission.
In Europe, countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain and Sweden already migrated to digital whereas in Africa, some countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Namibia and Uganda have started migrating. But others such as Malawi, have not.
With the June 2015 United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU) deadline for all countries to stop broadcasting analogue television signals, the road to switch-over to digital is not as easy for many African countries, including Malawi, experts say.
â€œThe remaining period to the deadline is a bit too short for many African countries to successfully migrate. I can see that come June 2015, many of them will not have fully migrated to digital,â€ says Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association (Sadiba) executive member Koenie Schutte.
He says it has taken over 10 years for such developed economies as UK to migrate to digital despite having sufficient resources.
â€œThe transition to DTT has typically taken over six years in such countries. In markets or countries where the majority of the population relies on terrestrial (tower) reception, migration has taken over 10 years,â€ says Schutte.
He says migration to digital television broadcasting in Africa may further delay because many African countries are still grappling with the choice of digital transmission technology standards to adopt for their television broadcasting such as Digital Video Broadcasting Terrestrial 1 (DVB T1) or DVB T2.
DVB T2 technology enables one transmission frequency in the space spectrum to carry up to 20 channels, thereby freeing up more spectrum space which can be used for other purposes such as mobile phone signal transmission, unlike DVB T1 and other digital transmission technology standards where one frequency carries less than 20 channels.
â€œThe recommended standard is DVB T2, but some African countries have not yet decided which standard to use because of some factors, including pressure from other major economies which are advocating adoption of their standards,â€ says Schutte.
Then, there is the issue of cost and accessibility of digital terrestrial decoders which are required to decode digital television signals for all viewers including the ordinary person in the village to watch TV on their same analogue TV screen.
With high levels of poverty on the continent, many African countries are still considering whether to subsidise the cost of the decoders for the poor or let consumers buy at full the price. Without the decoder, no one will be able to watch TV when analogue transmission is switched off.
Another contentious issue delaying digital migration in Africa is who to entrust with the job of carrying and distributing signals or content of several TV channels carried in one transmission frequency as up to 20 TV channels, for example MBC-TV, AFJ-TV, Luntha TV and others, can fit in one frequency.
â€œThe entity responsible for signal distribution is very crucial, whether it is State-owned or itâ€™s a partnership with the private sector. Countries need to ensure that this entity is in place to successfully migrate to digital,â€ says Peter Michael from Nigeria.
He adds that most African countries also lack adequate and quality TV content to support the transition process to digital.
â€œWith more channels available, you need to produce more local content to fill space in those channels. Viewers need to get what they have been promised to be convinced to migrate; otherwise, it will be difficult to get people to buy terrestrial decoders if TV content is poor,â€ says Michael.
MultiChoice Africaâ€™s corporate affairs general manager Caroline Creasy says their current satellite transmission is already digital; hence, existing DStv subscribers do not have to change devices or buy any new equipment to migrate to digital.
MultiChoice Malawi marketing manager Titania Kaunda says apart from launching the DTT in Malawi, MultiChoice will also launch another product called Go-TV which she says will use satellite transmission and target the masses with low incomes.
Director of information and civic education in the Ministry of Information, Isaac Cheke Ziba, says Malawi is optimistic to roll-out and launch the digital terrestrial network next year ahead of the Sadc digital signals switch which has a deadline of December 2013.
He says the whole digital migration process will cost the country over K2.3 billion up to 2015, insisting that Malawi is optimistic to meet the June 2015 ITU analogue transmission switch-off deadline.
â€œWe may subsidise the first set of terrestrial decoders or set top boxes (STBs) for purposes to launch the digital network. Our target is to start the roll out of the network in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, and then move to other districts,â€ says Ziba.
With the recent issuance of several TV licences to broadcasters like Times TV, Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) TV and Beta TV, Malawians surely have some high expectation to see how their TV screens will change after the roll-out of the digital terrestrial transmission network in the country.