On March 6th, the Director General of the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), Mr Abdou M.K. Touray, said to Foroyaa that government was in exclusive talks with Senegalese company Excaf Telecom to implement digital migration in the country. Excaf Telecom has been in charge of the same process in Senegal. Their contract is ending this year and Senegalese government is right now reviewing the project.
“This is a real dilemma. Excaf clearly failed to complete digital migration project. If we were to renew their contract, we would have no guarantee they could complete it. On the other hand, asking another company to complete the project would be acknowledging that government made the wrong choice by choosing a local company to do the job.” This is how an anonymous source close to the Senegalese government describes the current situation.
Excaf has been chosen in 2014 to complete TV industry digitalization in exchange for getting exclusive license to sell DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television) bouquets (package). And in June 2015 for DTT project official launch, government was proud to announce Senegal was the first Sub-Saharan African country to realize digital migration using a local solution.
At that time Excaf Telecom CEO Sidy Diagne was optimistic while talking to Jeune Afrique magazine, “we give ourselves until the end of August (2015) to equip the whole territory”.
But on October 30th, 2015, a court ordered Excaf to cease selling decoders after they broke a contract with their exclusive dealer, African Transaction Processing and Services (ATPS), by allowing other dealers to sell decoders.
This was the beginning of a series of financial and legal issues for Excaf. Soon, Senegalese government had to jump in and subsidize decoders to avoid complete failure of the project. Excaf didn’t actually have sufficient funding to implement the digital migration. Nevertheless this wasn’t enough to make sure the project would be a success.
According to the former Communication minister of Senegal Abdoulaye Bibi Baldé, who was answering questions in parliament last November, “lot of regions, especially in the South and East, are not covered by DTT network. And decoder distribution is insufficient. Excaf Telecom distributed 450,000 decoders while their target was 800,000”. After four years of work, half of the country still doesn’t have access to DTT when the project’s deadline is end of 2019.
But those who have access to Excaf decoders are not satisfied either. “When weather is good, we can get all channels. But once it rains, then it is over, we are happy if we get a couple of channels with a clear signal,” explains a former Excaf subscriber from Saint-Louis region.
“Even if signal had no problem, apart from local channel, Excaf bouquets don’t have interesting programs. Compared to satellite TV operators, their content is poor.”
Excaf Telecom content is another issue. Their DTT bouquets offer local channels for free but international ones for a fee. So to make money, Excaf Telecom must convince their subscribers to pay for international channels. But until now, Excaf Telecom wasn’t able to offer attractive content compared to their satellite TV competitors. Furthermore, Excaf Telecom has been convicted several times for broadcasting channels without authorization, again last December for airing Sport TV Portugal and Canal Plus.
“We lost all faith in Excaf. They have repeatedly showed they were unable to implement this project, which in result did not bring any benefit to local TV industry. It did not boost local production for example. Senegal has 1.8 million households equipped with TV but after four years only 250,000 of them are using Excaf decoder, that makes only 14% of the total. And most people are only watching free local channels. This is a disaster,” explains a government source.
Digital migration is indeed a complex process but if implemented correctly it can be very fruitful as it is considered as a way to boost local TV industry. It will lead to new investment in the local TV industry, such as in Ghana where more than forty channels are now competing to attract viewers. New channel means new content so the local production capacities will be boosted. In return, private companies will advertise more on TV. Digitalization of the TV will also free frequencies that can be sold for other purpose such as telecommunication. And for the population it means new attractive content as well as a better quality of image and sound.
Digital migration can be a real opportunity for The Gambia. The country failed to meet the 2017 deadline for all International Telecommunication Union (ITU) countries but a new deadline has been set for the year 2020.
The government should learn from Senegal’s project challenges. The key to a successful digital migration is an experienced and solid partner. One could doubt Excaf Telecom is the best choice for The Gambia.