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Africa blog: Out with the old, in with the new


By: Alan Hird, CEO, Globecast Africa

We have some exciting news: we've just completed a move into a brand new facility here in Johannesburg.

But let's step back first to give a little context. Our first job in South Africa was in 1994 where we provided an uplink for the BBC's coverage of the first democratic election in the country. We saw an opportunity and set up an office in the foreign media building near the SABC. Our initial focus was news with stories like the horrific Rwanda genocide and the terrible floods in Mozambique, which were hard to cover but the world needed to be made aware. Then we moved into sport and provided the world feed for the 2003 cricket World Cup as well as facilitating unilateral feeds for many other major sports events. We have created media facilities across the region, starting with the CHOGM event in Nigeria in 2003 where we set up the first broadcast fibre network in South Africa. This supplied links to all the main broadcasters and production companies, as well as international connectivity points. In 2012 we moved into the digital space and have been involved in the launch of at least four OTT platforms in Southern Africa.

How did we go about our recent move? We spent a lot of time and resources understanding what our customers need, both short and long term, as well as a very detailed service transition plan. As we handle close to 100 live television services, and we, of course, needed to do this without any down time, it required meticulous planning from our engineering team.

We performed wiring upgrades and installed new routers. We added generators with uninterrupted power supplies (this is particularly crucial here with our power supply issues that include ongoing periods of load shedding' or rolling blackouts). We found that with all this new equipment it was easier to build a completely new facility rather than try to upgrade the existing one. We are more centrally located now, and we have a modern new facility, primarily focused on handling digital content - which is critical to the way the broadcasting market is moving.

As with the rest of the world, content consumption is changing but there are also considerable regional factors at play. What are we seeing with the move to online viewing and across digital more widely in terms of streaming contribution services to broadcasters? Taking the latter first, this is absolutely happening here and is something with which we're very involved. We had a conversation with a TV platform last year and they wanted a channel delivered from Europe onto their DTH platform and we suggested streaming it: they said, no, we don't trust that. But such is the speed with which new technology is being adopted it only took them a few months to change their minds. We are now streaming that channel and two more.

When it comes to the consumer end with OTT, then the familiar ARPU challenge emerges again. An example of what operators may face is when we helped launch a platform in Botswana six years ago, we found what was happening was people were literally standing under lampposts where there was a free internet access point. They would sign up to the OTT service, but they lost signal or left before they received the email asking them to verify their details. They might return days later when the verification process had already expired. We wrote code to enable the verification process to stay alive for a lot longer than you would do in Europe, for example. A customer may not have 24/7 internet access and download content when there's a hotspot available or, dare we say it, at work.

The model has to allow customers to onboard over a two/three-day period rather than a two/three-hour period. It also has to allow them to download content, and it's very possible they're downloading it to a mobile device, without much storage. I don't think anyone has devised the right model for Africa. The likes of Netflix cater to the top end users who have more disposable income, but finding the right model for the wider population is an ongoing challenge.

The other thing we found when working on the Botswana platform, on the days when the national football team was playing, the level of new sign ups was phenomenal. But what was even more interesting was they were doing so to access a terrestrial TV station. It seems that for many, the only way they could do so was through this OTT platform.

The OTT platform missed a trick because they were allowing people a 24-hour free window. People signed up in the morning, watched the game, and then disappeared again. But what this shows is if you get the content and pricing right, this can work.

Getting the right content at the right price is crucial. But there's also the other end of the equation and that's about how the service is built from a technical and cost perspective. How can we move from a CAPEX to an OPEX model while also massively increasing the easy scalability of a service, in both directions? This is where the cloud comes in.

Globecast's cloud expertise is no secret, with the company working on a range of projects for over a decade now. Customers are now very interested: a customer who said specifically they weren't interested in a cloud or even hybrid solution ten months ago is now wanting to move everything into the cloud. We are looking at content production, workflow orchestration and automated processing, archiving, live acquisition, channel assembly and distribution and direct to consumer platforms. The advantages are enormous and endless, with a main one being savings on existing operations. Then there's the reduction in time to market, removal of barriers to entry, dramatic reduction in CAPEX: our customers only consume capacity as and when they need to. The bottom line is that they realise the value of their
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