When Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down on Feb 11 few would have thought of the ramifications that would impact broadcasting in and out of Egypt. Within hours Egypt’s state-supported television began congratulating the Egyptian people “for their pure great revolution, led by the best of the Egyptian youth”. The next day MENA state news agency issued a statement assuring the people that “Egyptian TV will be honest in carrying its message” and since it “is owned by the people of Egypt [it] will be in their service.”
A few days later the arrest started. “Corruption, nepotism, favouritism and a waste of public money are pervasive inside [the Nile-side TV building]. You can see signs of them everywhere”, said Shahira Amin, a well-known Nile TV anchor who quit on Feb 3 in protest at what was happening from government forces. “The whole system should be changed,” she argued.
That change is happening. The chairman of Egypt’s giant public broadcaster Egypt Radio & Television Union (ERTU) was arrested and is now facing charges of misusing public funds. Osama el-Sheikh, the ERTU chairman, has joined his former boss, Egypt’s minister in charge of information, Anas al-Fikki, who was arrested on Feb 23 on charges of corruption. Egypt’s attorney general has frozen the assets of both men, and forbidden them from leaving the country.
Indeed, Egypt’s new broadcasting freedoms have resulted in greater demand for satellite capacity, says Nilesat’s CTO Salah Hamza. “The new freedoms we are seeing in the Middle East are leading to a fresh demand for satellite capacity. But would-be broadcasters want to be on our neighbourhood,” says Hamza. “This itself could lead to a major flowering of creativity. In general the national stations have fallen well behind the private [non-governmental] channels. Egypt’s new Prime Minister seemed to recognise this when he first visited the private TV channels prior to visiting Egypt’s public channels. He feels that if he wants to talk to people he had to address the private stations where the mass market viewers are.”
While this is creating fresh opportunities for Nilesat, there are also problems. “What is really bothering us today is signal jamming in our region. The problem itself is not new but what is now different is the intensity of the jamming. It used to be that a news channel would be jammed for 5 or 10 minutes and then the problem would go away. Now it seems the jammers, and we are sure it is Libya, are setting up their equipment and seemingly going to sleep for day after day and happy to close down the complete transponder for that time.”
Hamza says his team can do very little. “They are jamming several transponders at the same time, affecting Al Jazeera, Al Hurra, Alarabiya and others, all news channels. The broadcasters involved are being moved to spare frequencies on our satellites but this latest jamming is at very high power levels. We are left with very little that we can do, even reducing the actual power of the satellite is not having much affect. Then there’s jamming of the Libyan main channels by the Libyan opposition. So we have jamming from government supporters, and anti-government supporters in Libya.”
Hamza says a Code of Ethics is needed between satellite operators and everyone else. “If people are cooperating from a sympathetic government, for example, then something should be done on an ITU basis. Our problem, as everyone knows in the digital world, is that we don’t suffer just the loss of the channel being jammed but all of the other channels on that transponder.”
He stresses that broadcasters understanding the dilemma Nilesat faces. “For example, Al Jazeera which is one of those channels targeted by the jammers, has just taken two extra transponders from us [at least one to be used for HDTV]. They know how important our distribution is within the region.”
Hamza says Nilesat is having no problem working with the new Egyptian authorities, such as they are. “We are a private, independent joint-stock company. Our shares fell back a total of about 5% at the height of the problems while other Egyptian businesses fell back much more. As a long-term growth vehicle for our investors they tend to keep our shares, and the free float is only about 11%. There’s another aspect: we are a US dollar company, and this makes trading in our stock difficult for smaller investors.”
But there’s another, more pleasant, aspect of the recent troubles. “Today, we have more clients than ever. Since the problems we now have a long list of private individuals and organisations who want to broadcast TV channels on Nilesat, and now have the freedom to do so. There’s another change. A few months back, under the old regime, we were obliged to remove certain channels. They are now all back on air with us, and can I say the new processes are a little more relaxed than under the old regime.”
Fortunately, Nilesat now has the expansion room able to cope with this fresh demand. “Progress on our latest satellite Nilesat 201 goes very well, and transponders are selling well. However, we have not yet succeeded in marketing our Ka-band transponders because it seems that potential buyers are looking for subsidies, and this is not our intention. We are optimistic about using Ka-band for backhauling and looking at installing suitable equipment at our clients within the next two months.”
Nilesat says that it will co-operate with the upcoming Yahsat satellite, and permit Abu Dhabi-owned Yahsat to use certain of Nilesat’s Cairo facilities and in particular establish a Cairo uplink, as it already does for Arabsat. “We are a commercial operation and happy to agree a competitive fee for this sort of service, “ says Hamza.
As to HDTV sales Hamza says Nilesat is currently carrying 24 HDTV channels, and others are expected including promised channels from market-leader MBC which is creating special all-HD content services. Transmissions were due to start in February, but that date has slipped a little.
Now surplus, Nilesat 101 is under offer and Nilesat’s board has three offers to buy or lease the complete craft, which has some 2.5 years of life left. Nilesat is also looking at extending its orbital spread to other slots. “We are talking to other operators about using some of their unused frequencies. This is for future exploitation, not just yet. I am optimistic, and one option could be for us to share a satellite.”