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Alex Twinomugisha

Technological Convergence: A television in the palm of every African

alexAbout a year ago, Safaricom, the Kenyan mobile services company, DStv an African cable television provider and Nokia announced the launch of a new service to avail some DStv channels on specific Nokia handsets in Kenya. The announcement certainly did not elicit much excitement, initially. Then came the first Africa-hosted World Cup and suddenly one could see people in Nairobi following the football matches on their phones. The World Cup may be gone but the technological landscape in Africa has been shaken and perhaps even changed forever. Think convergence.

Convergence or the meeting and fusion of various technologies has certainly been around for a while now. But it has always been the stuff of engineering and geeky conferences. The rise and rise of the Internet brought into sharp focus the real potential of technological convergence. Backtrack to the late 90s and early 2000s: convergence of television broadcasting and internet technologies was one of the hottest technology topics.  At that time, the focus was on turning the Personal Computer (PC) into a television (TV) and vice verse.  Companies in the western world raced to provide “triple play services”- voice, video and data (internet access) on the same link (copper wire, cable TV or fixed wireless) to homes and businesses. By the mid 2000s, fortunes had been made and lost. Then the mobile phone grew up and the potential of 3G with its largish bandwidth promise saw the mobile telephony providers join fray. This is when Africa also joined the convergence and triple-play conversation.

Convergence of several technologies on the mobile phone has been moving along steadily. Now, camera phones are considered standard in the developed world and increasingly so in Africa as well. Radio is fast becoming standard too. Data capabilities on the mobile phone has doubled and in some cases tripled the number of people with internet access in many countries in Africa. This, in the space of a year or two. Applications like Facebook are a huge hit in the more cosmopolitan cities of Nairobi, Lagos or Dakar. Indeed, there is growing evidence that access to the internet via the mobile phone is not limited to African cities or the more affluent but is also used by rural communities as this story suggests (see http://allafrica.com/stories/200911300642.html). And now we have the arrival of television on the mobile handset.  At the moment, mobile phones with TV capabilities have a TV tuner built into the handset. True convergence- where the video, data and voice are all seamlessly delivered over the same cellular channel- is not a reality yet.  But this is on its way with technologies such as Long Term Evolution (LTE) showing huge bandwidth promise.

According to knowledgeable friends in Kenya and Uganda, this TV-on-the-mobile-phone phenomenon is growing fast thanks to cheap Chinese “smart phones” that cost a quarter or even less of the established brand models. Consider that only a handful of countries in Africa have more than 10 televisions per 100 inhabitants (and almost none in sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa and Mauritius). Consider also that Africa averages about 37 mobile phone subscribers per 100 people and growing rapidly according to the ITU. The possibility of having TV on the mobile phone will dramatically increase the number of TV owning and viewing people in Africa. Combine this development with the increasing move towards digital television in Africa (international agreements call for all countries to have adopted digital television by 2015) and the ability to deliver perfect video over the internet and one realizes that the economic and social implications of this development could be dramatic in a sense.

So what will change?

If you imagine that digital television will be to television what FM radio was to radio, then soon, every community in Africa will have a TV station up and running. Add in the ability to receive television broadcasts on the mobile phone and we are looking at an explosion in TV viewership. This means the demand for local content is going to grow with a resultant shift from being net content importers to mostly local content consumers. This is good news for the African multimedia and other content production and distribution industries. Perhaps this is the best thing to have happened to established and nascent film industries in several African countries. Already “Nollywood” (Nigeria movie industry) is thriving and such technological developments can only mean that viewership will increase.  

As local content consumption grows, it is only a matter of time before intellectual property rights become a hot issue in Africa. At the moment, it is probable that intellectual property rights are ignored because most content is foreign. As a growing number of Africans create content, they will in turn expect financial compensation and demand for protection of their intellectual input. 

Traditional television stations and newspapers might also be in for a rude awakening. The mobile phone’s ability to record videos and take pictures coupled with its increasing ability to share pictures and videos cheaply and seamlessly from the same device means that community journalism and broadcasting will probably be the “in-thing” in a few years. The current debate on the demise of the traditional journalist in the more developed countries is coming to Africa sooner rather than later.

The advertising industry will follow the viewers and so an explosion in TV advertising might soon be on the way. Whether potential growth in TV advertising will be tampered by competition from online advertising remains to be seen. But it’s probably a safe bet to say that TV advertising will dominate internet advertising in Africa for a few more years.

Then there are the social, cultural and political implications of a large TV-owning society. TV is considered the most “realistic” medium, the power of pictures and sound is incredible. Reading about or listening to events happening in one part of the country is simply not the same as seeing a video. This is good news for political and social activists and bad news for those who are considered opponents of “progressive change”.  Will wide spread TV ownership somehow lead to a renewed interest in African culture or will it be the straw that broke the camel’s back? The jury is out on this one.

I am optimistic about the positive change that increased ownership of TV will bring to Africa. It will bring much needed impetus to develop local content. It will spark innovation and creativity in the media and broadcasting industry in Africa. And it will surely (re)shape politics, culture and society. Foreign content producers do not really consider Africa a key market and this will work in favor of the local content industry as foreign competition will be muted, initially at least.

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Alex Twinomugisha

Alex has extensive experience in ICT for Education and Development in the areas of planning, design, implementation and management. He is currently the Africa Regional Director for GsECI based in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to his work with GeSCI he was a technical consultant to the World Bank in Washington DC for the African Virtual University (AVU) project responsible for setting up and managing the online and satellite infrastructure for eLearning involving 34 learning centers in over 15 African countries. He has undertaken other special assignments providing technical assistance and advice in the acquisition, deployment and use of ICTs in Education for various international organizations.

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