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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The first frequency planning and coordination meeting organized by the International Telecommunication Union and the African Telecommunication Union to help African countries strengthen their FM radio broadcasting services took place virtually, Feb. 15–19.
The reunion was part of the joint GE84 Plan optimization project for Africa, which aims to identify new frequencies for analog FM sound broadcasting in the 87.5–108 MHz (FM band).
This plan launched in July 2019 in the country as a joint ITU-ATU project to manage growing demand for FM stations, as well as to prepare African countries for the introduction of digital radio.
“Radio is a low-cost medium, well-suited to reach remote communities and vulnerable people. It is especially fundamental in times of disaster and emergencies,” stated ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.
South Africa has long known that through digitization, radio, as an innovative media platform, can become accessible everywhere and to everyone, and its extra digital benefits can enhance the key benefits of the platform — information, entertainment and education.
“Today in Africa, radio is a vital communication medium, delivering information and educational content with immense socio-economic value, particularly in rural areas,” added ATU Secretary General John Omo. “In many countries, however, the growth and reach of FM radio is hampered by the limited number of FM frequencies.”
Many organizations on the continent believe that the ITU-endorsed Digital Radio Mondiale standard most easily meets many of the key communication requirements of African countries.
As demonstrated in South Africa, it’s possible to deploy DRM as a standalone system that can offer solutions for all frequency bands in AM, FM and VHF, or in conjunction with another open standard (e.g. DAB+). In fact, representing 16 countries in Africa, SADC has recommended both DRM and DAB+ for digitizing radio in all its member countries.
Examination of the various digital audio broadcasting standards started in South Africa more than 20 years ago. Despite everything else, 2020 was finally the year recording more progress in this respect than ever before.
The South African government has published a digital sound broadcasting policy and ICASA, the telecommunications regulator, has drafted the licensing framework. This means that there is progress toward starting digital transmissions in all bands in the country. ICASA held public hearings on its draft licensing framework in January and published the actual frequency allocations for digital radio.
In 2014, the DRM Consortium established a Southern Africa Platform led by the managing director of Radio Pulpit. This medium-wave community radio station took the initiative to conduct a successful DRM for AM (medium-wave) trial. Kofifi FM 97.2 of Wecodec, a community radio station in Westbury/Johannesburg, also conducted a successful DRM FM trial. The trial report has been accepted as an ITU document to be published this spring.
These big steps taken by the South African government herald a next phase that requires a new group of experts to collaborate with the public, commercial and community broadcasters, government, the regulator, receiver manufacturers and other interested organizations, to progress the country’s radio digitization. This is important for South Africa as a country, and will serve as a catalyst for SADC and all African and BRICS countries.
There remain challenges, however. The country is still in the grip of the pandemic that’s hampering normal business activities, and there are divergent views on digital sound broadcasting by the various industry stakeholders.
But the advantages of going digital dwarf these challenges. There is a need for universal access to information and education to each citizen; a thirst for connection and betterment; and a necessity for job creation.
The country has a strong broadcast sector and a robust regulatory framework. Engineering expertise exists locally and can be enhanced by global know-how. Key industries, like the automotive and receiver industries, are ready for new projects and investments, be they governmental or private.
The next stage for the industry is the implementation of digital radio. This entails the incorporation of the two recommended standards (DRM and DAB+); conducting a phased or combined urban/rural rollout; encouraging market growth by allowing new players into the market; standardizing digital receivers in cars; and developing the standards for digital receivers.
The authors are directors of the recently re-launched DRM South Africa Platform.