7 December 2012

Uganda: Digital Migration Hiccups

Low public awareness and lack of funds are undermining the switchover:

If Uganda's digital migration journey had been by airplane, the pilot would by now be announcing to his passengers, 'tighten seat belts as we enter a turbulent section.'

Ahead of the Dec.31 date to start implementing the switchover from analogue to digital, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) - the regulator of the industry - says Kampala and its suburbs will be first to be switched on, but it will not be a total switchover as the two system will work concurrently.

Fred Otunnu, the UCC manager for Communications and Consumer Affairs, says they will not completely switch to digital but the process would operate concurrently with the existing analog system until the total switch-over which is expected to be completed by the ITU deadline of June 2015. The next two years, according to Otunnu, will be a period of 'dual illumination' commonly referred to as simulcast during which both analogue and digital signals are simultaneously transmitted.

"Our plan is that by Dec.31 Kampala and its suburbs will be switched on digital. No one will be affected as it is going to be a simulcast with analog before 2015 when the whole exercise will be completed," he said.

But experts contend that this is bound to cause 'turbulence' in the viewing experience of viewers and more so since thorough sensitization of the public is yet to be done.

UCC says a massive media campaign will soon be underway on TV, radio, bill boards and mobile phones, talk shows and interactive platforms among others to help in intensifying the transition.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the majority of viewers with set top boxes (decoders) have been using the older model of the DVB-T, yet it is the Digital Video Broadcasting - Terrestrial (DVB T2), which has been adopted by the EAC countries. This means that in order to access programmes on the DVB-T2 platform, consumers will again have to acquire DVB-T2 set- top boxes. For instance, DVB T2 can enable a television station such as NTV to broadcast dozens of channels instead of just one on one frequency.

Star Times, GO TV and Zuku TV are some of the companies that are spearheading digital broadcasting in the country. However, officials from these companies were non-committal on their readiness for the switchover.

Awareness hurdles

According to the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, the signal distributor, viewers will be able to receive digital as well as the current analogue signals. But confusion is still rife among viewers about how this will be done - a clear indication that sensitization is long overdue.

James Wire of Uganda's ICT Consumer Association, is critical of the way the digital migration timetable has been handled. He said UCC's approach has been "very pedestrian." "Not only have they kept this entire digital migration thing in the circles of the elite but they have failed to make Ugandans appreciate its importance," he said.

"Consumers do not have any much awareness of digital migration and the benefits it brings. Most of those who know are already in the technical domain and by virtue of their profession this is not news. UCC has grossly let us down here."

He said it was because of this that Uganda had become "a dumping ground of analog technologies that foreign companies need to offload in order not to cut their losses."

In a recent interview, a top official said UCC was also in a fix due to lack of money to implement the programme and sensitize the public.

Low public awareness, however, is not the only challenge facing digital migration. The cost of the equipment is also still high for most viewers. A cross-section of viewers fear that the process is going to cost beyond their means, which means they will simply resort to watching videos.

Prof. Ikoja Odongo, a lecturer of Computer Science in the Department of Information Communication Technology (ICT) at Makerere University says what people need is to be educated and sensitized about digital broadcasting, which he says is not being done as required. He argues that total migration will not come easily as there are many challenges, which UCC is yet to show that it can contend with.

In neighboring Kenya, the switch off is planned to be a phased out approach countrywide as opposed to the earlier planned one-off migration, according to the Communication Commission of Kenya. Nairobi City will be the first to be completely switched from analogue by the end of this year.

CCK agreed with the signal distributors Pan African Group and Signet to do a stage by stage migration, which could save the companies and government costs.

Uganda's digital migration plan is being implemented by the Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company, in conjunction with UBC.

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