1 July 2013

East Africa Broadcasters Raise Concern Over Startimes, Digital Migration, Local Content

Regional broadcasters have raised concern on issues revolving around the planned phasing out of analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting. The broadcasters met through a broadcasters' assembly in the recently concluded 20th East African Communications Organisation (EACO) Congress. Speaking to CIO East Africa, the chairman of the assembly, Engineer Wainana Mungai said that some of the concerns revolved around investments in analog broadcasting and some of the pay TV licensees.

The 20th congress marks the first time in the history of the EACO that broadcasters have chaired their own assembly. The 19th congress held in 2012 marked the first time that broadcasters took part in EACO, where they took part as observers. The assembly is a shift from working groups, which have been task forces ran by regulators. "It's a major coup by broadcasters to sit in an executive committee, (meaning that) decisions will be inclusive of broadcasters," says Wainana.

"Our concern is that some pay TV operators have been carrying content from broadcasters without explicit permission," he said, adding that the pay TV operators has been making money on the content without passing it on to the producers. The pay TV operator in question is StarTimes, which he said had seen complaints from all constituent countries of the assembly, which said the company had been involved in the same practice in their countries, including Uganda and Tanzania.

The stalemate has seen Royal Media, Standard Group and the Nation Media Group pull their channels from the two digital broadcasting signal platforms in Kenya.

The broadcasters demanded that regulators across the region enforce regulation that bars pay content operators from bundling free to air stations in pay packages

With a regional deadline of migration to digital broadcasting having been reached on December 31st, 2012, only Tanzania had started the migration process. The broadcasters blame failure in the other countries due to lack of adequate consultation, lack of set top boxes, lack of awareness amongst the public and issues with pay tv operators on digital platforms airing free to air content as mentioned above.

The broadcasters especially raised concern with the digital migration process in Uganda, where the national broadcaster has been issued with a five year exclusive digital signal platform license. "We must not create monopolies that don't make sense," said Wainana on Uganda's move. Uganda is yet to start digital TV transmission, with the process set to begin this month. Also raised was the issue on current investments on analog broadcasting transmitters and spectrum, currently owned by broadcasters. Wainana says broadcasters have put in millions of shillings in current signal distribution equipment and in spectrum required for analog transmission. The equipment will be rendered obsolete once the move to digital broadcasting is made while the spectrum will be repossessed by governments and reallocated to telecommunication operators for use in broadband networks (4G LTE).

The broadcasters are asking for compensation from governments for the investments they will be losing in the process.

Engineer Wainana said that regional broadcasters also had issue with plans by governments and regional broadcasters to enforce minimal quotas for local content. The Uganda Communications Commission is proposing a local content quota of 70 percent during prime time.

The regional broadcasters say that the definition of local content should be broadened to include content from any of the East African countries. This means that Tanzania and Uganda content aired in Kenya would be considered local content.

Additionally, Wainana says the challenge is in making a business case, rather than setting of quotas. Wainana says Citizen TV in Kenya rose to be the most viewed station due to nature of content rather than quotas. "Some stations are successful due to local content, not because they responded to quotas," he says.

The broadcasters also questioned plans by regulators to regulate media services such as Internet Protocol TV and social media. Wainana says regulators should find new business opportunities, such as was the case with mobile money, instead of regulation.

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