21 December 2012

Uganda: Communications Sector Registers Mixed Fortunes in 2012

IN keeping pace with global communications standards, the local communications sector recorded mixed fortunes as 2012 fades-out.

Digital migration

As a signatory to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Uganda was obliged to undertake digital migration as set out by the 2006 Geneva Regional Radio Communication (RRC) Conference.

ITU fixed June 17th, 2015 as the deadline for all member-countries to digitalise their television telecasts and broadcasts.

The East African Community (EAC) fixed December 31 as the deadline for digital migration; earlier than the 2014 deadline for SADC and 2015 for COMESA.

Digital migration is the transition from analog to digital terrestrial broadcasting, enabling the utilisation of digital signals rather than analog waveforms to carry broadcast over assigned frequency brands.

However, whilst Uganda fixed a four-phase switch programme, with digital preparation kicking-off 2009, digital switch launch (2010), simulcast period (July 2010) and analog switch-off (December 31, 2012 ) real digitalisation started in January 2012 and was set to last 12-months.

Digitalising, according to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the sector regulator, allows viewers to enjoy quality reception, variety of channels, enhanced broadcasting applications like the electronic programme guide, multimedia data and entertainment services all capped with a more efficient use of the spectrum, the kind Pay-TV service providers like Dstv offers.

It ensures efficient spectrum utilisation, with a single channel bagging more programmes and releasing space for other services.

However, with a few days to the December 31 deadline, Uganda's road to digitalisation is still murky.

For example, while UCC plans that the installation of $2m digital terrestrial transmitters whose grounding, contracted to Haris Corporation, a US- ICT firm, will cover 50% of television viewers in the greater Kampala region, including Mukono and Wakiso, when it is switched on January 2013, full digitalisation is still a dream considering that government specified Set Top Boxes (STBs) are yet to arrive in the country.

An STBs, also known as a decoder, is a receiver that, when connected to a television set, will decode the digital signal to enable the channels to be displayed on an analogue television set.

For most Ugandans who own analog TV-sets, the mandatory STBs, subsidised at $50-$60, may still prove expensive, limiting digitalisation.

With no chance of beating the deadline, UCC has postponed the cut-off date.

Kenya, like Uganda, failed on their initial cut-off date, extending their deadlines to May 2013 whilst Tanzania has phased its digitalisation drive.

Nonetheless, UCC is hopeful that Uganda will be digitally compliant by the June 2015 ITU deadline.

But the government's award of a five-year sole signal distributor rights to Uganda Broadcasting Service, affiliated to UBC TV, has proved controversial with other TV stations argue that being a competitor, granting the national broadcaster monopolistic powers would cause a conflict of interest and give it unfair competing advantage over others.

SIM card registration

On March 1, UCC announced nationwide registration of all the 17 million Subscriber Identity Module (SIM cards) in Uganda, with all mobile phone holders mandated to comply within 12-months when non-subscribers would be de-activated. The registration of SIM cards is in line with the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act, 2010. SIM registration, a global trend intended to fight fraud and insecurity peddled through telecommunication, is also a regional exercise undertaken by the East African Communications Organisation for which Uganda is a member.

However, whilst the exercise kicked off expressly, not even the threat of de-activating unregistered SIM cards has attractive a rash in registration. Presently, only 50%- 55% of SIM cards are registered, although UCC targeted 80% by December 2012.

It is also unlikely that even the 90% target UCC set by March 1, 2013 is achievable, although a massive media campaign and outreach campaigns in 20 populous districts is projected to increase registration before deadline date. Even with those registered, the absence of a national ID or a biometric system renders authenticating information provided a Herculean task.

Be as it may, UCC will take heart from Nigeria and Tanzania that effected SIM card registration in the absence of national IDs.

Outlawing fake phones

In October, UCC, following in the footsteps of the Communications Commission of Kenya, announced a ban on counterfeit phones flooding the Ugandan market over fears on their health impacts and poor quality. UCC will phase the de-activation process, starting with a stop on in-flow of others into the local markets.

It has also instituted a short code system where, to ascertain their authenticity, subscribers send their phones' International Mobile Equivalent Identity (IMEI) - serial number signature imprinted on the inside of the device's battery compartment - to 8883.

A data base of all IMEIs provided by GSM Association, a global body that assigns numbers to all authentic phone manufacturers, has also been put in place. As it stands, UCC plans to de-activate fake phones in circulation by June 2013 in a process that will involve the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and UNBS, the standards regulator.

On a lighter note, however, Uganda was elected to the council of Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the continental Pan-African postal Union in 2012.

Uganda, under the leadership of Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda the ICT minister, was also elected to chair the 35th International Telecom Satellite Organisation (ITSO) for the next two years.

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