The date of 17 June has been portrayed as the point at which there must be a global take-up and use of digital TV signals – ready or not – a kind of ‘worldwide digital D-Day’

Digital transition is an expensive business, and each country has its own set of regulatory complications, challenges and relations with its neighbours to contend with. So the sense of panic to meet the deadline in just under a month’s time, particularly for developing countries, appears palpable.

But it’s more complicated than that. The deadline is not strictly an analogue switch-off date, but the date by which countries are no longer required to protect the analogue services of neighbouring countries against interference by their own digital switchover.

And although ‘internationally mandated’ the deadline isn’t applicable to the whole world (hence the provision about interference at borders). The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the UN agency responsible for applying the international agreement and date – divides the world into thirds (shown above in yellow), and the date only applies only to Region 1, with the addition of Iran, and the exclusion of Mongolia (both circled).

So all of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the countries of the former Soviet Union are bound by the date, called the 2006 Geneva Agreement (GE06). But the region contains countries with very different levels of wealth to make the costly transition. After the deadline Region 1 nations will still be able to broadcast in analogue alongside digital signals – called ‘dual illumination’.

With a few affected countries, such as Mozambique, Nigeria and South Africa, already confirming they will not meet the deadline, the question is: does it matter?

Contingency plans

In order to make the transition, a host of changes need to be in place, from a country replacing at least a few transmitters to start with, to sourcing and distributing set-top boxes. In the case of Mozambique, Chinese funding for its new digital transmission station has been delayed. Therefore Mozambique had taken the decision that it cannot turn off the analogue signal on 17 June.

Last month at press conference, quoted by, the country’s Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications, Manuela Rebelo said: “The government accepts that it will not be possible to comply with the deadline for ending analogue broadcasts.”

She added that the country had already taken steps to reduce the risk of interference with its neighbours, by signing agreements with South Africa and Malawi (that still leaves borders with Zambia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Tanzania to contend with). Public broadcaster TVM was planning to install eight digital transmitters in border areas by October, the press conference was told.

Therefore, Mozambique will switch off as soon as it can, when it is ready, rendering the deadline irrelevant in a way – meanwhile it is safeguarding citizens’ access to free-to-air TV, and putting measures in place to mitigate disruption.

And how big a problem is cross-border interference? Are political barriers necessarily technical ones? The head of Namibia’s PSB, Albertus Aochamub, said at the PMA (CBA) conference last year: “Knowing that our borders are artificial anyway… if I want to watch Botswana TV, why not?” However Namibia is on track with analogue switchoff.

Nevertheless, digital broadcasting as the future was decided quite some time ago, and its advantages are clear – capacity for more channels and therefore content, and less electricity required for transmission to the same coverage areas. And the very nature of the transition does require broader international cooperation.

Domino effect

The head of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, François Rancy, outlined the catch-22 to PMA: “The main difficulty with broadcasting from the spectrum point of view is that you have high-tower high-power transmitters. And this may create interference several hundred kilometres away from the transmitter.”

To avoid this, he said, countries have to coordinate their frequencies, and consulting bilaterally is not enough: “It has to be done on a multilateral basis to avoid the domino effect – you have to solve all the problems at the same time.”

Back in 2006, when the agreement was drawn up, there was a choice between a plan for international digital TV transition which preserved some spectrum for analogue within it, or to go digital-only. The latter was chosen, as the other alternative would have left a graveyard spot in the spectrum which could not be used later.

Preserving analogue is like planting a new forest around existing trees and taking out the existing trees when it’s grown

“It’s like planting a new forest and watching it grow,” said Rancy, “it’s more efficient than saying, ‘I’m going to plant a new forest around the existing trees and when it’s grown I will take out the existing trees but I will have no space for future growth.’”

There’s no doubt that giving a third of the world’s land mass just nine years to make such a big technological change was going to be ambitious – the date and the ‘catchment area’ are both compromises and abstract to a degree. The border between Regions 1 and 3 is a case in point. It stretches west to east from Iran to Russian’s eastern coast on the Sea of Japan. What happens to countries on either side of this line, eg Iran and Afghanistan, Mongolia and Russia, in terms of interference, who has to protect whose signals and who doesn’t?

This is where there do have to be bilateral agreements, and in many cases these are said to be in place already. At the time of the deadline’s ratification, special allowance was also built in for 21 African countries[1] that transmit using the VHF band (which was mis-reported as a new deadline extension earlier this year) with an extra five years for VHF only. UHF deployment is voluntary, but must be digital. In addition there are 12 countries[2] that did not attend the meeting that agreed GE06, so they were given until 2020 at the time.

But there could be no extensions after the 2006 agreement: “The deadline was agreed by consensus – the countries committed together,” said François Rancy, “this means that nothing can be changed without another regional meeting. The ITU can’t change the deadline itself.”

Rancy emphasised that Region 1 countries would still be able to broadcast in analogue, they just needed to talk to their neighbours, test and possibly shift frequencies, negotiate a solution.

“It’s clear that many countries will not be ready – it’s not the end of the world,” he said.

[1] Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Iran, Jordan, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan, Chad, Togo, Tunisia and Yemen.

[2] Benin, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Madagascar, Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone and Somalia.