ADDIS ABABA — The Information Network Security Agency (INSA) has announced plans for a single integrated satellite television platform called Ethiosat, which would “replace foreign satellite service providers” and provide a streamlined consumer experience.
Once in place, the system would position security agency INSA to better to regulate the dissemination of foreign-based transmissions to the Ethiopian population.
Many citizens in Ethiopia have satellite dishes that provide access to international television channels as well as Amharic and Oromo language broadcasts run by diaspora groups. These channels are available through international satellite providers Nilesat, Eutelsat and others.
Under the new system, according to INSA Director-General Major General Teklebirhan Wolde-Aregay, all of the various satellite services would come together under one platform – Ethiosat. This apparently means that a consumer would buy a single subscription of bundled international services offered via Ethiosat rather than buying access to individual satellite providers.
A report by the state-run Ethiopian News Agency says that INSA officials briefed Ethiopian media professionals on Friday at the Addis Ababa Hilton on “how Ethiosat operates and replaces foreign satellite service providers.”
The move comes after complaints by Ethiopian officials that the diaspora-run satellite broadcasters ESAT and OMN incited violence during protests in 2015-2016. Security agency INSA says the new platform “is open to private television channels” but also points to the regulatory benefit of having all the satellite providers packaged through a single platform.
Major General Teklebirhan explains that the new system would “ensure equality and fairness of media usage as well as to create an informed community.” He revealed that the new system would be called the “National Integrated Satellite Television Transmission Platform.”
Platform Ethiosat “to ensure equality and fairness of media usage.”
Friday’s press report from the state-run Ethiopian news agency did not say whether it would be made explicitly illegal for satellite providers to continue marketing and providing their services independently of the new Ethiosat integrated platform.
But INSA is surely considering what types of incentives, pressures, or restrictions could be applied to ensure that at least some of the main satellite TV providers start packaging their channels into Ethiosat for the Ethiopian market. Given that Ethiopia does not operate its own commercial satellites, Ethiosat will necessarily need to be a joint venture with commercial providers.
Authorities will need to address the consumer side of the equation as well. What incentives or penalties will there be to get customers to start subscribing to the new platform rather than continuing with the foreign satellite providers?
Whether or not authorities attempt to explicitly restrict satellite services that carry diaspora-run channels, the new Ethiosat platform presents a commercial challenge to the diaspora outlets, competing for viewers and fans through a potentially more accessible, cheaper medium. General Teklebirhan points out that Ethiosat will “drastically cut the foreign currency fee that is currently paid to satellite service providers… as well as expanding access.”
State-run national and regional TVs as well as commercial broadcasters Kana TV, which airs popular soap operas, and Nahoo TV, are candidates for inclusion on the new platform.
In the meantime, channels like ESAT and OMN, which are blamed by Ethiopian authorities for the recent unrest, might remain accessible through international channels not bundled into the new platform. Even if there were a crackdown on unauthorized distributors, dedicated viewers of these services could potentially continue to watch through technical workarounds.
Ethiosat could be a game-changer for Ethiopia’s media landscape. But it’s too early to count out the independent broadcasters.
But would diaspora broadcasters be able to continue growing a national audience inside Ethiopia in such circumstances? It depends on this: How much does the average Ethiopian viewer care for political commentary and news broadcasted from abroad? If the new platform offers added convenience and improved cost, while still maintaining some variety and quality, would viewers abandon channels like ESAT and OMN?
If so, Ethiosat could be a game-changer for Ethiopia’s media landscape. But it’s too early to count out the independent broadcasters. Much will depend on the quality of Ethiosat’s roll-out and implementation.
The technical regulatory environment isn’t the only factor influencing media consumption patterns. Ultimately, Ethiosat’s success or failure will rest on whether Ethiopia’s state-run media and commercial partners can offer up the kind of programming that attracts viewers and captures hearts and minds. Otherwise consumers will continue to look elsewhere for news and programmes that they trust and enjoy.
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