COVID-19's TV lesson

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COVID-19's TV lesson

Chris
Dehring

Friday, March 20, 2020

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Maybe there is a silver lining. This COVID-19 episode will hopefully show everyone the importance of the digital switchover (DSO) in national disaster preparedness and management, and finally get it done.

The good job the Government is currently doing communicating and managing would have been far more effective if not for the perennial delays in the DSO. We should be watching a live audiovisual government info-channel on all things COVID-19. Available 24/7 on both free-to-air broadcast TV and streamed online, this channel could be dedicated to coronavirus-related news bulletins, prevention and treatment advice, and be the central, omnipresent, and credible source of information to direct our collective response. Instead, only the privileged few with constant Internet connectivity and a Facebook account are able to tune in at will to the live press conferences and digital town hall meetings in this time of national crisis. Meanwhile, thousands of Jamaicans, lost in the digital divide, especially in inner-city and rural Jamaica, remain digital refugees and at risk. We cannot continue to cater only to the well-off minority.

Imagine if every Jamaican could tune into that 24/7 digital channel on their TV set all day and night to keep abreast and be educated on the true best practices, rather than having to decipher fake from real news on the Internet. Imagine instant on-screen alerts and notifications on our televisions, creating a ubiquitous communication platform to ensure all Jamaicans have access to critical information. All without the need for people having to pay for unaffordable Internet connectivity. Having Government websites zero-rated is good. But a static screen with lots of words does little to soothe frayed nerves and calm a nation.

The 'maths' is simple. Of the 880,000 households in Jamaica, 91 per cent have at least one TV set. And broadcast television is still the most cost-effective way to reach the masses — a tiny fraction of the cost of Internet data and with a much wider reach. There are hundreds of communities throughout Jamaica without viable Internet availability. And in many places where it is available, a cross-reference with the monthly tax roll and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) shows it isn't going to be affordable to most for now. Surveys and statics show that half of Jamaica is still in the dark, grainy age of access only to analogue free-to-air TV broadcasts of one or two TV channels, both of which will have legitimate commercial considerations and obligations that limit airtime for national broadcasts. But that is a big part of why the rest of the world made the digital switchover.

If we had switched over as scheduled, hundreds of digital television channels could now be available to everyone on their TV, including multiple free-to-air channels. With schools now closed, classes could be broadcast free to everybody's TV set as a mitigation. The Government has announced that classes will be available online which is great. But what about the vast majority of students who don't have or can't afford 24/7 Internet connectivity.

Getting at least a basic digital set top box into every unconnected home (that is, no cable or Internet) — as has been done in almost every country globally for their digital switchover — will create the foundation for a truly digital society. Meanwhile, our DSO has once again been pushed back, this time until 2021.

While we wait on broadband operators to roll out affordable Internet service to everyone islandwide, we can learn from COVID-19 and get the fundamentals right.

Christopher Dehring is chief executive officer of Ready TV.


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