The rise of mobile TV in South Africa

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SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: Mobile television is one of the fastest-growing media markets in South Africa, with video on demand (VOD) platforms such as Netflix, Showmax and Cell C’s black beginning to surpass traditional broadcasters as the nation’s preferred content providers.

This article takes a look at the rise of mobile TV in South Africa, from its inception to its rapid evolution in recent years.

THE EARLY DAYS OF MOBILE TV IN SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa’s first introduction to mobile TV broadcasting came in 2010, with the trial launch of DStv Mobile. This service sought to take advantage of two growing technologies at the time: DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting – Handheld), and 3G, the ‘Third Generation’ of wireless mobile telecommunications technologies. These options reflected the two main ways in which television services could be transmitted to mobile devices, a technological breakthrough first made by South Korea in 2006.

DVB-H is a form of terrestrial broadcasting, where a station will encode content and forward it – as data – to a streaming server. The encoded data, usually H.264 for video and AAC for audio, is then sent to broadcast towers, which ultimately deliver the data to mobile devices, where it is processed and played as video or audio content.

What is important to note is that, in a sense, DVB-H remains a ‘traditional’ form of broadcasting, with a ‘one-to-many’ style of transmission and a ‘uni-directional’ mode of broadcast. Simply put, this means that – although content can be delivered to users via mobile devices, affording some freedom and flexibility – many viewers are still ‘tuning in’ to watch content produced by one station at a pre-arranged broadcast time.

THE SHIFT TO VIDEO ON DEMAND AND INTERNET STREAMING

Although in the South African context it remains hugely popular for sports, concerts and other live events, this ‘traditional’ broadcast model has been severely disrupted in recent years by the emergence of video-on-demand (VOD) platforms and internet streaming.

Internet streaming is different from terrestrial digital broadcasting in several key respects. Firstly, the mechanism is different: with internet streaming, content producers encode and upload audio and video data (often via content distribution networks) to global internet servers, which are then accessed independently by viewers from their mobile devices.

Of course, this mechanism relies on an integrated system of mobile technologies. Cheaper handsets, greater access to network coverage and continually falling data prices have all contributed to the development of mobile broadcasting in South Africa. At the same time, the ‘cloud revolution’ has made it a viable medium for broadcasters wishing to engage with audiences.

Deyasha Sukdeo is head of Television Broadcasting at Global Access, a company which uses “television broadcasting, digital signage, web-streaming and other technologies to distribute relevant and impactful content.” She underscores the importance of technological advancements, saying that “the expansion of broadband internet access and the increase in fibre networks have contributed to better reception of mobile broadcasting.”

However, Sukdeo goes on to say that “a shift in mindset, where mobile content consumption is encouraged, has also been beneficial” – and this reveals the key difference of mobile TV as a mode of broadcasting. In contrast to the traditional model, mobile broadcasting has a ‘one-to-one’ style of transmission and a ‘bi-directional’ mode of broadcast, meaning that although users may be restricted by bandwidth or data limitations, they can view content on demand, either by streaming it from the internet server, or downloading it to watch at a later time.

THE STATE OF MOBILE TV TODAY 

The importance of this “shift in mindset” cannot be overstated. Around the globe, viewers have responded to this ability to watch not only the content they want to see, but also when and where they want to consume it. A 2015 Nielsen survey estimated that nearly two-thirds of the world’s viewers regularly access some kind of VOD service.

One of the leading South African platforms in the mobile TV revolution is Cell C’s black. The CEO of the company, Jose Dos Santos, highlights the incredible potential for growth in this sector throughout the African continent, stating that in comparison to the global Nielsen average, “the same mobile content is only being served to one-fifth of African viewers.”

According to Dos Santos, “the pricing and flexibility of black will change that” – and the platform has already seen great uptake in its app-based VOD service, while a set-top box for home TV viewing is also available. Affordable data packages and a premium selection of content are central to the platform’s goals, and black has already established some high-profile content partnerships with major networks and sports organisations. Their November 2017 agreement with the Fox Networks Group (FNG) of Europe and Africa to launch the FOX+ VOD service in South Africa is a “momentous deal” in the words of black’s chief executive of Content, Surie Ramasary.

Although things are improving, Sukdeo reminds us that “data costs remain a big challenge to people viewing on mobile devices. Mobile video content is data hungry, and connectivity isn’t always available, stable and reliable for the viewing experience.”

Thankfully, in addition to platforms like black, there are companies – such as Tuluntulu, an online radio and TV content distribution platform launched by Pierre van der Hoven – that have emerged in recent years with innovative solutions to these challenges.

While most VOD platforms stream content at 140 or 280Kbps to ensure high-quality visuals and audio, this can prove too much for what Tuluntulu calls “the developing world’s congested networks and low-bandwidth environments.” As a response, the company has developed “rate-adaptive” technology, where mobile devices can still deliver content with a streaming rate as low as 50Kbps.

With a willing market and increasingly sophisticated technologies to aid its development, mobile TV is set to continue its disruption of traditional broadcasting formats, both within South Africa and throughout the continent.

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