In 2015, 2020 at the latest, the world goes digital. Most of it already is, but not the broadcasting sector. The transition from analogue to digital broadcasting is already under way or completed in some European countries and the US. The rest of the world is in line - and too many people have no idea what this is all about. "For many broadcasters, digital TV is variously mysterious, complex, far away, unpleasant. Regulators may not be up to speed either." This is the conclusion that John Burgess draws in his newly launched report Throwing the Switch: Challenges in the Conversion to Digital Broadcasting  that was commissioned by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA ).
The digital switch is relevant for development because television is still a major information lifeline for hundreds of millions of people, especially in the countries that receive development aid. The switch is of quite some magnitude, with the entire world abandoning the analogue technology. And the topic is politically charged. It's important because it can bring more information into remote areas, open channels for citizen participation in the media landscape, and bring interactive services into households, such as individualized applications for benefits. As Marjorie Rouse from Internews put it: "the tremendous opportunity here is voice."
It can also all go terribly wrong. The problem is not only the ignorance of the issue, it's also about money. Digital conversion will be a party for producers of broadcast technologies because virtually each and every broadcasting station will have to get new equipment. Viewers will need to get new television sets or converter boxes if they want to remain viewers, as Burgess put it. That'll cost. It will be the responsibility of donor organizations to not waste the potential of digitalization. The potential will be wasted if independent media organizations have to go out of business because they can't afford going digital, if community radio stations have to shut down, if the poorest and least educated are shut off from any kind of information because they can't afford a new radio or a converter box for their TV sets.
These dangers motivated USAID 's Troy Etulain to warn that "we might actually take a step back instead of taking a step forward with digitalization." The digital divide, once mainly discussed with regard to the Internet, might become a digital gulf with regard to what one might consider a simple issue, broadcasting.
However, donors will not have an easy job. The allocation of digital frequencies is a rather convenient opportunity for corruption. Frequencies are mostly auctioned off by governments, and as John Burgess pointed out, what a nice chance to strengthen family ties should your uncle own a broadcasting station! Don Podesta of CIMA and Marjorie Rouse argued that donors will have to make aid for digitalization conditional upon an open and fair licensing process. Conditions should be established in a consultative process that involves citizens and community media.
It may "only" be 2009, but it is high time for donors to think about how to approach the digital switch. Not approaching it will mean severing millions of people from their information lifeline - often their only connection to public affairs. And it will mean denying them what they desperately need: a louder voice. Approaching it too late may have similar consequences. The process is already a mess, as one of the launch participants put it, and it won't get better the more urgent the deadline becomes.
Picture credit: Flickr user [desta]