The head of NBC, Namibia’s national broadcaster, gave a spirited keynote address at the CBA Conference. Albertus Aochamub debunked a number of myths about digital transition in Africa, talked about why radio is still the “killer application”, described the state of play with China and why and how African countries will need to learn to work with them.

Aochamub started by telling the conference how formative years in Glasgow had shaped his religious and political views. He put his country into the context of press freedom, with a 2013 World Press Freedom map showing that Namibia had the most free press in Africa, on a par with Nordic countries and Canada.

To put the broadcasting landscape into context, Aochamub said that the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation was the dominant player in TV, with 66 per cent coverage. NBC also has a mandate as the public broadcaster to promote the English language, although it broadcasts in another nine through radio.

“Radio is at 98 per cent [coverage]… it’s the medium of choice for our people,” said Aochamub, adding that NBC runs a transmitter network that is also relied upon by commercial broadcasting and telecommunications. “It gives us as a broadcaster a lot more responsibility.” But he said that the somewhat unusual setup also simplified things in terms of decision-making over access.

No panacea

Namibia is currently in a dual illumination phase (broadcasting in both analogue and digital signals). But “technology is being presented as if it’s a panacea to all our ills,” he said, describing DTT selling points such as increased internet access and reducing frequency scarcity, as well as the notion that countries were doomed if they missed next year’s transition deadline as “myths”.

Aochamub, who has both a telecommunications and broadcasting background, said of the supposed internet access dividend from DTT rollout: “I don’t think the two worlds necessarily converge as neatly as technology people have us believe.”

He continued: “Frequency scarcity is not real, at least not in most African countries,” pointing to examples in several areas of the continent where there had been a wave of radio licence applications and then cancellations when profits failed to materialise. These were many of the same countries that were burdened by laborious regulatory frameworks for broadcasting copied and pasted from European contexts. “More regulation is really the obstacle, not lack of frequency,” asserted Aochamub.

He also pointed to what he saw as the real agenda for freeing up spectrum – increasing profits for mobile operators in a very fertile market, not providing more space for radio or TV.

Don’t panic about digital

Aochamub told the conference there were quite a few countries covered by a 5-year extension beyond next year’s deadline to complete digital transition, therefore it was not true that countries not meeting the deadline would be left behind. He said African countries should “not panic” and roll out at their own pace, and within their means.

He questioned the concern over cross-border signal interference. “Knowing that our borders are artificial anyway… if I want to watch Botswana TV, why not?” and criticised the notion of neighbouring countries suddenly isolating themselves as “little artificial blocs” next year, because in reality there are shared borders, cultures and interests.

On the increasing investment and influence of Chinese companies in African broadcasting, Aochamub described the now well-established formulas of joint ventures, so-called soft loans, outright grants, and combining local CEOs with teams of Chinese engineers dropped in for a short time. He contended that the system had filled a vacuum where countries, and not only in Africa, had been distracted battling with each other and their old colonial masters.

He concluded: “The Chinese are here to stay, we will have to contend with that reality and find a formula that works within our context.”