Digital Switchover in Sub-Saharan Africa

Low-band spectrum is the cornerstone of digital equality and a driver of broad and affordable connectivity. A successful Digital switchover (DSO) is vital as countries seek to maximise the economic value of their national spectrum assets.

The “Digital Switchover in Sub-Saharan Africa” report released this week by the GSMA, provides background, recommendations, and insights from the DSO process in Sub-Saharan Africa. The experiences in Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Senegal, and Tanzania provide vital lessons and guidance.

Due to the greater efficiency of digital terrestrial television (DTT), the DSO process allows countries to use less broadcast spectrum. By taking advantage of the improved spectral efficiency, governments can reallocate low-band spectrum for mobile broadband.

Low-band mobile spectrum helps give rural communities equitable access to services available in urban areas. There is a direct link between spectrum availability and download speed and so increasing low-band capacity will deliver faster 5G in areas – often rural communities – that are out of the reach of higher bands. Low-band capacity is at the core of ensuring that 5G is available to everyone.

The report draws common conclusions from the DSO processes of the countries studied. Each of the five countries in the report encountered challenges relating to funding, availability and cost of digital TV set-top boxes, regulatory frameworks, consumer outreach, and legal and technical obstacles. All these challenges can be addressed and the report highlights some of the lessons learnt from the experiences of the countries studied.

Overall, three important lessons stand out:

  • Countries must embrace flexibility, whether regarding funding, adjustments to regulatory frameworks, or responses to unexpected roadblocks.
  • Outreach to both consumers and key stakeholders plays a key role in ensuring the successful completion of the digital migration.
  • An essential part of the transition is ensuring the speedy and successful assignment of the digital dividends. As the key benefit to be derived from the transition to DTT, putting the newly available spectrum to use for mobile services is a hallmark of a successful migration.

Continued efforts to conclude DSO and replan frequencies for mobile will allow the first and second digital dividends, or the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands, are available to mobile services throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the report also shows that in all countries in the region, the number of DTT channels being broadcast, combined with use of DVB-T2 technologies, will allow the development of the 600 MHz band for mobile, boost rural capacity and help lower the digital divide.

The frequency ranges below 694 MHz, including the 600 MHz band, are an optimal candidate to be identified for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) to provide highly valuable spectrum with little to no impact on the broadcasting sector in SSA. At the upcoming International Telecommunication Union (ITU) 2023 World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC-23), Sub-Saharan African countries, as part of Region 1, will have the opportunity to review the current use of the UHF band, and in particular the 470-694 MHz frequency range. This is an opportunity to safeguard digital equality in the SSA region. To learn more, the “Digital Switchover in Sub-Saharan Africa” report is available for download here. Recently, the GSMA also published an in-depth look at the future of low-band spectrum. It is available here. You can also learn more about spectrum pricing and licensing in the region here.