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Digital Switch On: Tony Dara disclosure and call for national introspection

Although Nigeria has missed more than two deadlines in the digital switch over process to the disappointment of many Nigerians and ITU, what has become…

Although Nigeria has missed more than two deadlines in the digital switch over process to the disappointment of many Nigerians and ITU, what has become more embarrassing is the claim by Mr. Tony Dara that the transmitters installed by ITS have been discontinued by the original equipment manufacturer more than 10 years ago. Dara, an acclaimed broadcast engineer, who had acted as a consultant to the National Assembly on Nigeria’s digital switch over brought this fact to the public sphere and the famed Nigerian factor has begun to set in.

Responding to the finding on installation of obsolete transmitters that have been discontinued by the original equipment manufacturer, Integrated Television Services (ITS) General Manager, Rotimi Salami did not contradict the finding but instead confirmed that the transmitters were indeed “commercialized in 2008” and sought to rationalize using them on the “room for backward integration” existing in broadcast technology which he nevertheless described as “very dynamic…innovations are made at an alarming rate”.

Even before the now unavoidable legislative inquiry into the shocking findings of  broadcast engineer Tony Dara, the defaulting Integrated Television Services (ITS) has owned up to installing obsolete broadcast equipment in the Jos pilot project centre. The NTA subsidiary put out an advert supposedly “to expose the fallacies and outright falsehood” in the Dara Report in which it ended up confirming the veracity of the finding.

Let the rest of the world strive to keep pace with the innovations and dynamism of digital signals broadcast,  while Nigerians  make do with antiquated modems so that the technical epilepsy associated with  electricity supply will be transferred  into our broadcasting infrastructure’s  “compatibility” hardware.  It was the same sickening surrender to stagnant development that led ITS into retaining old buildings and facilities to house the DSO in Jos and Ilorin, another flaw identified in the Dara Report that ITS failed to debunk.  According to ITS GM, there was no reason to even consider new buildings for the DSO process because nine years ago the White Paper on DSO recommended that the “existing and massive” broadcast transmission infrastructure of the NTA, VON and FRCN should form the backbone for the new broadcast signal distributor. Someone should ask Mr Salami of ITS why these old buildings were not even considered for renovation.

Again, to add pseudo-savvy to the idleness of its initiatives, ITS GM exposed the fallacies integrated into decisions by declaring that “a building does not determine the quality of transmission, rather (sic) it is the state of the equipment”. This evidently cannot be technically applicable to a backwardly integrated compatibility-chasing choice of obsolete equipment that will be depending on perpetual coupling and combinations to deliver digital output from analogue inputs! What would it have cost to put up new buildings designed with the spatial and other specifications suitable for workflow in the DSO which is not comparable to the decades old analogue equipment “existing” in NTA?     

It is unfortunate that these are the untenable, illogical and technically bankrupt responses that ITS churned out in a vain and vexatious attempt to dismiss the crystal clear compilation of the deceptive and defective foundation laid for the DSO in Nigeria by the Federal Government’s own agents and agencies.

The crux of this disturbing matter is that OVER ONE BILLION SEVEN HUNDRED MILLION NAIRA was collected by the NTA-ITS from Federal Government coffers specifically as take off grant for the DSO pilot project! With such a humongous budget why should their DSO project be relying on discontinued obsolete equipment when at every material time there were latest successor models of the digital transmitters by the same manufacturer which are in fact future-assured technology and not the retrograde discarded systems that Mr Salami and his colleagues will be using to prove their backwardness? Does Nigeria have to wait until the analogue-fanatics pushing backward integration in Nigeria while the world is on digital fast track to the future in broadcast technology are themselves rendered obsolete by age and tenure before we can catch up with the rest of the world in digital broadcasting?

 It is also intriguing that the industry regulator, National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) which is charged with monitoring and supervising the broadcast industry in Nigeria has so far maintained a loud silence while the ITS scandal unfolds. NBC should have been the first to identify any deviation from set standards and impose the necessary regulatory sanctions to ensure compliance, especially at the critical stage of commencement of the DSO. The only conclusion this surprising negligence of duty and aloofness to the exposure of malpractice raised is culpable collusion in the scam. This deplorable attitude was responsible for the initial installation of obsolete equipment by ITS as well as the cover-up of the scandal during and after the celebrated launching of the Jos pilot project.

An indication of the culpability of the NBC was given the other day on Channels TV when Armstrong Idachaba, the NBC director specifically charged with the monitoring of broadcasting, erased any doubts about the Dara Report findings and the implication that his organization failed to perform its fundamental duty of monitoring and regulating the very first official roll-out of the DSO in the Jos Pilot Project. Confronted with the Dara Report’s shocking revelation that ITS commenced the implementation of the DSO in Jos by deploying equipment that have been discontinued by the original equipment manufacturer, Mr. Idachaba was clueless and speechless as he declared the indicted ITS more competent to respond and even offered contact details for Channels TV to “BRING THEM IN AND LET THEM EXPLAIN”. In other words, NBC as the government regulatory agency in broadcasting and the DSO in particular, could neither deny nor confirm that ITS actually rolled out obsolete analogue equipment for the Jos pilot digital switch over project!

The same Mr. Idachaba had earlier bragged that “Jos was a fantastic experience for NBC”, that “all the theorizing and planning we did regarding framework for DSO we had a chance to implement in Jos” and crowed about how the local people in Jos were enjoying digital terrestrial television free of charge on 30 channels. He obviously was not expecting to be asked about the Dara Report and was visibly flustered having to literally eat his own words by admitting also that ITS had not met the 30 channels requirement and had still not covered the entire Plateau State (not even the entire Jos township according to Dara Report), since the fanfare launch in 2015 in violation of the timelines set by the NBC.

By an unexpected turn of events, the NBC has been caught on camera exposing the deliberate derailment of its regulatory role from public interest to the pecuniary interests of a mafia-type cult of government officials intent on a digital swindle operation under the cover of the Digital Switch Over (DSO).  Against the background of several deliberate failures of NBC to meet set deadlines for the project launch in the last five or more years, the confessional conspiratorial conduct of the regulator in the “pilot” plus the weighty material evidence of the Dara Report should convince the Federal Government beyond reasonable doubt that corruption will not kill DSO NIGERIA if the culprits can be brought to book.

It is therefore necessary to urge the Federal Government to revisit and expand the scope of the initial investigation by the EFCC that resulted in the sacking and arraignment of the former DG of the NBC, Emeka Mba. It is quite clear now that it is not only the handling of the contracts for set top box “manufacturers” that was riddled with financial irregularities and violations of due process but also the entire process of implementing the DSO. Indeed even the surreptitious manner by which StarTimes hijacked and proceeded to subjugate its supposed license holder NTA in the pay TV sector calls for thorough investigation.

The House of Representatives Committee on DSO should take the lead by concluding its investigations and releasing a report of its findings. Sad it is that the jinx that has bedeviled our DSO since 2014 remains a cog in the wheel of progress in 2017. Now that we know where the problem comes from, we stand a better chance of eliminating it once and for all. The revelation by Tony Dara is the best thing to ever happen to DSO in NIGERIA.

 

Yakubu wrote this piece from Abuja.

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