News Column

Bumpy ride as Uganda races to beat digital migration deadline

June 17, 2014

FREDERIC MUSISI -1



The clock to the digital switch off on December 31 is ticking away fast, notwithstanding, a pile-up of technical and operational hiccups in Uganda's voyage to digital broadcasting. Digital broadcasting is based on the use of digital transmission technologies such as Digital Video Broadcasting -Terrestrial decoders (DVB-T) video and audio compression technologies such as MPEG 2/4.

June 17, 2015, is the internationally ascribed deadline according to the agreement of 196 member nations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), signed in the 2006 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Several countries, however, committed themselves to different dates below the global date and serious concerns are being raised by experts if the deadline will be met.

The East African Community member countries, for example set for themselves a 2012 date; which they respectively kept altering. Uganda first zeroed in on 2010, then 2012 and now 2015. Rwanda, with a single state-owned broadcaster has remained on course while Kenya remained true to her word and by late 2013 had moved to switch off all analogue technology in the capital, Nairobi, until court intervened to order extension.

Lack of mass awareness, technical hiccups, the poor quality of pay-TV content and poor technology distributed by some players and the costly technology, leaves a lot to be desired for Uganda and casting doubt whether the deadline can be met.

Digital broadcasting takes two forms; satellite broadcasting which uses satellite dishes and is already provided by MultiChoice under DStv. The other is digital terrestrial broadcasting, which the government plans to implement under the ITU agreement.

The government broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) which is the main signal distributor will transmit signals from the main centre (Kololo) to the various towers across the country from which signals will be beamed to homes. Every television user will require antennae to pick up the signals and a Set Top Box (STB) better known as a decoder to convert them.

The executive director of the telecommunications regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), Mr Godfrey Mutabazi, said they "are working tirelessly to meet the deadline and the plan is to switch off Kampala first and the surrounding areas within a radius of 70-150 kilometres under signal broadcasting."

The surrounding areas include a bigger part of Wakiso.Private players like Gotv, StarTimes, Zuku Tv and recent entrant Azam Tv, are already steering the terrestrial broadcasting; offering several packages that differ according to prices but consumers are still frustrated about the limited space to free-to-air channels/local like NTV, NBS and others.

But Mr Mutabazi added that when they start switching off analogue technology, every consumer with an antenna and a decoder will continue accessing the free-to-air channels. UBC, which UCC granted a five year licence is supposed to install/revamp regional transmission/satellite centres in areas like Mpoma-Mukono, Arua and Masindi to facilitate signal distribution in the different regions.

However, some centres like the West Nile region satellite station at Ombaci, in Arua, constructed in 1976 during the late President Idi Amin's time has since been neglected; station equipment vandalised and is rotting away.

Attempts to reach the UBC managing director, Mr Paul Kihika, to comment on the progress of this activity, were futile for several days but he had told this newspaper earlier on, that UCC's plans to switch off Kampala are unachievable.Mr Kihika was quoted last year, saying: "Even if you perform miracles, Kampala cannot be switched off by December 31, 2015."

UCC puts rough estimates of television set owners at 1 million with about 70 per cent located in the Kampala metropolis and is confident that the deadline will be met."We realise that the entire country cannot move at once; that is why we shall start with areas with better television signal capacity and from the lessons learnt in the first phase, we shall improve and move to other regions," Mr Mutabazi said.

Why digital broadcasting?Digital migration is applicable to both television and radio. Several countries, however, chose to move with T.V first, due to the Frequency Mode (FM) availability under which the spectrum is governed.

According to the ITU, digital migration is crucial as it will help improve broadcast quality as well free the currently congested spectrum. The freed space (digital dividend spectrum) is expected to be offered to mobile telephone companies to improve their voice and data connections."Presence of a digital dividend spectrum would mean that less infrastructure would be required to provide wider mobile coverage, all resulting in lower costs for communication services, especially in rural areas," part of the notes posted on the ITU website, explain.Delayed digital migration, will mean continued poor mobile phone network in the country, in addition to poor quality of television pictures.

The bumpy ride Ideally, digital migration is intended to give television consumers more content, choice and better service quality, but instead has increased complaints to the regulator to take necessary action against providers who do not meet standards. Players like MultiChoice and StarTimes were licenced by UCC to sell STBs through which they can choose to remain subscribed to pay Tv packages or can only access local channels. There are more than 20 licensed local telvision stations. UCC also says these should be free even after the migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television – DTT.

The thorny problem of Set Top BoxesThe other problem with Uganda's migration is that it is being steered by private players who sell STBs as well as offering Pay TV services. A willing consumer has to part with between Shs80, 000 to Shs120,000 for a STB. And several experts have argued that private players cannot issue STBs at cheap prices—factor in profit and tax obligations. The government either offers cash hand-outs to its people to buy STBs or waive some taxes for the providers so they can offer them slightly cheaply.

According to Ana Aguilar, director in the Economic Consulting group at Deloitte in London, UK, it is the only "win-win situation" because you can not stop them from selling both STBs and providing pay TV data. "Several governments have taken different models; scrap taxes for players, extend financial hand-outs or provide the STBs," Ms Anguilar explained at last year's Digital dialogue conference in the United Arab Emirates.

Kenya, which has remained a model country in fast-tracking the digital movement, scrapped the 25 per cent tax on STBs and made them relatively cheaper.Another concern that lingers is the standard of technology authorised, which UCC is yet to be clear about. The Digital Video Broadcasting-Terrestrial (DVB-T) also described as T1 was the authorised technology for all STBs but along came DVB-T2.DVB-T2, ideally is the newest technology and according to UCC, "provides the benefit of the best technical performance, offering an increased efficiency of 30 to 50 per cent in its use of spectrum compared to DVB-T."

The technologyUganda was among the first countries like Russia, Finland, Kenya, Croatia and others, to pass tests for the adoption of DVB-T2. But then UCC went ahead and granted StarTimes a licence to offer the DVB-T technology, until, the consumers started complaining and eventually the company was dragged to court.

There has been little consumer awareness about this kind of technology and some consumers still complain about the poor reception of signals by their decoders/STBs.The campaign has been widely publicised both in media and through meetings by the regulator outside other platforms but it is still unclear whether the technical aspects have been digested by most television viewers.

Mr James Walusimbi, a resident of Kinawataka, says he has heard advertisements on radio so many times but says, "I don't understand what it's all about. One thing I hear is that when that time comes, we shall no longer watch television using antennas and that we should buy either StarTimes or Go TV, but which is also expensive," Mr Walusimbi said. He added that he does not have any idea of what Set Top Boxes or any other terms like digital or analogue, which are often used. But UCC's media relations manager, Isaac Kalembe, said they are trying to sensitise the masses on what the digital voyage entails.

The Uganda Consumers Protection and Awareness Association, recently also raised the similar issue of the limited awareness against the fast-approaching deadline in addition to the jitters over free-to-air channels.

A recent report by the Auditor General, Mr John Muwanga, indicated that despite substantial amounts (Shs9.4 billion) of money injected between the financial year 2012/2013, there is no headway.

"The migration process to digital broadcasting was planned to last about two and half years effective July 2009 and the national broadcasting digital signal coverage would be covering 50 per cent of the population by 2010, 80 per cent of the population by 2011 and close to 100 per cent by 2013 at which stage the analogue signal would be switched off."Mr Muwanga, advised UCC management to review its implementation plan with a view to addressing the bottlenecks that caused failure to achieve the planned tasks.

Digital migration is gaining momentum MultiChoice's general manager Charles Hamya, who is steering both satellite and digital terrestrial technology to target a wide TV market (both low and high income), says, there should be no further excuse for shifting the deadline again.

"We believe the process is gaining momentum as the deadline approaches despite the challenges of limited finances required to implement the migration," Mr Hamya said. "MultiChoice as a key industry player is supporting the transition and has set up network infrastructure in most of the major towns (Lira, Mbarara, Kampala, Entebbe, Arua, Masaka, Jinja, Mbale, Gulu and Kasese) and subsidising STBs."

Regarding free to air channels, he, however, said they made "a provision for viewers who are interested in only free to air channels to be able to benefit from the investment we have made by paying a one off administrative fee for our GOtv Open bouquet."

StarTime's public relations officer, Ms Christine Nagujja, similarly noted that the digital voyage is "too slow because of the fact that the government has taken long to work towards the deadline." She added that the failure by government to meet the deadline is worsened by the ever changing inflation rates.

What the failure to beat the deadline meansPanic gripped television viewers last year in August after all local television stations, except UBC TV, went off air as UBC set up digital transmitters at the main transmission centre in Kololo. Only those with STBs could watch television, which points to what might be witnessed ahead.

ITU, after the switch off, expects to align all frequencies in each region and the failure by specific countries to beat the deadline means they may start experiencing interruptions of frequencies from other countries.

The organisation, currently arbitrates such issues but after the deadline it will not be in position to do so. Migration is also expected to create digital space for broadband for even telecommunication companies to ease internet access among others. The failure to migrate in time means that this will all be affected.

CHALLENGES OF DIGITAL MIGRATION

Digital migration is intended to give television consumers more content, choice and better service quality, but instead has increased complaints to the regulator to take necessary action against providers who do not meet standards. Much as the campaign has been widely publicised both in media and through meetings by the regulator outside other platforms, it is still unclear whether the technical aspects have been digested by most television viewers.

The Uganda Consumers Protection and Awareness Association, recently also raised the similar issue of the limited awareness against the fast-approaching deadline in addition to the jitters over free-to air channels. A recent report by the Auditor General, John Muwanga also indicates that there is limited progress.

musisif@ug.nationmedia.com


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Source: Daily Monitor, The (Uganda)