Ghana’s programme for migrating from analogue to digital broadcasting may seem to be smooth sailing, but private broadcasters are raising alarm bells for fear the government could use the new policy that will guide the transition to create a censorship regime.

So far, the private broadcasters have fully cooperated with the authorities on the transition process because they are aware that failure to meet the June 17, 2015 deadline for all countries to go digital will mean the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), of which Ghana is a member, will remove all protections from Ghana if signals from another country interferes with its broadcast transmissions. But the thorny proposal by government to use the state broadcaster as the sole signal distributor is threatening to disrupt the entire migration process unless a compromise is soon reached.

The National Digital Broadcasting Migration Technical Committee, set up by the government to cart a way for Ghana to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting, in its final report suggested that the country uses the state-owned broadcaster, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), as the signal distributing entity; a proposal which has angered the private broadcasters.

The Committee argues that the state has used tax-payers money obviously including taxes paid by the private broadcasters – to finance the resource deployment at GBC and it was important that this investment was not allowed to go waste.

Kenneth Ashigbey, Chief Operating Officer of Multi TV- a private digital TV operator on Satellite, who is appreciative of the consultative process by the government to get all broadcasters on board the migration process, is of the view that putting GBC in charge of signal distribution will make the playing field uneven.

“If we are not careful and we go about saying let’s use GBC as the signal distributing entity because government has already invested in it, we will be making the platform very uneven,” he said. “A lot of us in the private sector will not feel comfortable putting our content into the hands of the state broadcaster especially if you consider the fact that broadcasting information and access to information is critical to media freedom.”

The private operators even question the claim that the state broadcaster has superior capacity that makes it the best candidate to handle the role of a signal distributor.
“The argument that GBC has the biggest assets is a non-starter. If you put the resources of all private broadcasters together, GBC doesn’t come anywhere near,” says Gerald Ankrah, Executive Secretary of the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA).

The private broadcasters also point out that like GBC, they have also invested in developing their digital infrastructure and so a better way going forward, is for GBC to bring its resources and assets into a pool, which will also have those of private broadcasters to form the independent corporate signal distributing entity, where all broadcasters would feel they are equal and have the same level of control.

This way, the private operators will feel protected against possible censorships or any attempts by the state to frustrate them. In spite of the concerns raised by the private broadcasters, the state broadcaster seems unrelenting in its effort to follow through with its plans to get TV broadcasting digitalized in Ghana, even if it means defying the National Communication Authority, the regulator, and going solo.

GBC has gone ahead to collaborate with the Swedish based Next Generation Broadcasting, NGB, to set up a new digital television transmission network, SMART TV, which is currently airing on the state broadcaster’s platform – a development which has obviously angered the private broadcasters.

“If we all decide to go solo with the digital broadcasting migration, what do you think will happen in the country? There will be chaos,” said a visibly worried Mr. Ankrah.

“On this whole SMART TV issue, I’m really at a loss. I’m an executive member of GIBA and the NCA tells us that they have not given authorization to NGB to operate SMART TV. So what is happening? Why has the NCA not done anything about it?” Ashigbey queried.

An engineer of the Frequency Management Division of the NCA, Edmund Fianko, who also doubles as the secretary to the digital migration committee, has confirmed the operators of SMART TV have not been authorized to operate any TV network.

He said GBC and NGB have no authorization to start any pilot commercial services yet. And warns: “If GBC maintains an entrenched position and refuses to cooperate with the regulator, the necessary enforcement measures will be taken against them.”

But GBC is adamant and continues to air SMART TV on its platform, thus raising eye brows as to who are the interested parties that are ensuring that the digital network operator continues with its ‘illegal’ broadcasting.
Perhaps, it was to help NCA deal with the challenges of working with the ‘powerful’ state broadcaster and the regulator’s seeming paralyses in cracking the whip, that the digital migration committee said in its report; “We would have wished that only a single independent signal distribution company operated in the digital broadcasting market. However, considering the interests of certain private investors to establish private broadcasting infrastructure to promote competition, market efficiencies and offer choice and/or redundancy to broadcasters, the committee recommends that at most two signal distributors should be licensed at the inception of digital

How this plays out, will be seen in the coming years as the country rolls out its digital TV migration programme by end of 2012 in all regional capitals, while the rest of the country follow suit by the end of 2014 - a year ahead of the international deadline for all countries to migrate to digital broadcasting.
There is certainly a lot of global experience in digital migration that Ghana could learn from.

The London-based Commonwealth Telecom Organisation (CTO), for example, early this year, at the invitation of the Ministry of Communications, held a workshop in Ghana for some 25 officials of various institutions, to sensitize them to the various policy, legal, operational, technological and commercial aspects of digital migration. The CTO will be organizing also in the first week of February 2011, in Johannesburg the sixth in its series of annual conferences on digital broadcasting.

It is to be hoped that at a time of technological convergence between the telecoms, IT, Internet and broadcasting industries, the stakeholders in the Ghanaian ICT sector will take measures to learn from best practices from around the world to ensure that Ghana’s migration path to digitalization is as smooth as possible.