31 December 2013

Kenyan Broadcasters Feud With Regulatory Agency Over Digital Migration

Nairobi — Television viewers in Nairobi and its environs can breathe a sigh of relief after the Court of Appeal ordered the continuation of analogue broadcasting for 45 more days, giving it time to hear an appeal from three major media houses.

The court issued the injunction Friday (December 27th) pending determination of an appeal against a December 23rd High Court ruling that gave the Communications Commissions of Kenya (CCK) the go-ahead to enforce the migration from analogue to digital broadcasting signals.

On December 26th as originally planned, the CCK shut off all analogue broadcasting signals, leaving many Nairobi residents with blank screens. The shutoff was rescinded 16 hours later after the Court of Appeal ruling.

The Kenyan government initially set a June 2012 deadline for phasing out analogue television broadcasting, but failed to meet the deadline due to logistical problems and a desire to provide more time to raise public awareness.

The government moved the deadline to December last year for Nairobi and April 2013 for all other areas, but again, the move was postponed as some stakeholders questioned the effect the change might have ahead of the March 2013 elections.

More than a year later, migration to the digital platform has yet to be realised, as the Media Owners Association and the government continue to battle in court.

Kenyans express concern, confusion over digital migration:

Maurice Onyango, a 43-year-old father of four in Kibera, said he felt reprieved by the court's decision.

"We feel pressured and forced to migrate," he told Sabahi. "The notice was too short and furthermore the costs of acquiring universal set-top boxes are prohibitive and beyond the common man's affordability."

Onyango said his monthly wage was 10,000 shillings ($116), of which he uses half for paying rent, 3,000 shillings for food, 1,000 shillings for paying school fees for two of his children, and the rest goes to electricity and water costs.

The universal set-top boxes on the market now cost between 5,000 and 5,500 shillings ($58-64), and are necessary for analogue television sets to receive and covert the digital signal.

"It is very unfair for someone to expect me to spend 5,000 shillings to buy a universal set-top box so I can be able to receive digital signals to be able to enjoy my normal TV programming," he said. "To me this digital migration is meant for the rich."

Onyango recommended that the government subsidise the cost of the set-top boxes to make them affordable.

Mary Wangui, a 30-year-old divorced mother of three daughters in Nairobi, said the process was rushed and that she still had no idea what digital migration was all about and how the shift would benefit her.

"The government could have sensitised the public about digital migration as well as made the set-top boxes available and at a cost that is affordable even to us," she told Sabahi, adding that she cannot afford to have her television screen blank and be cut off from the world.

"If worse comes to worse I will divert the savings that I had made to pay school fees for my children next year and buy the so-called set-top box," she said, explaining that she would have more time during the year to save for the school fees. "But I doubt if many of other Kenyans can opt for such dire decision. I guess the majority will be switched off and cut off from getting news for the better part of the year."

Media owners rally against digital migration:

The Standard Group which owns KTN, Nation Media Group which runs NTV and Royal Media Services which owns Citizen TV moved to block the migration in court until the concerns raised are resolved, according to their lawyer Paul Muite.

Muite said the media groups were seeking to delay the migration until there is a demonstrable 50% universal set-top box penetration and the boxes are more affordable.

The media groups claim that an immediate switch-off would result in over 90% of television viewers locked out as they have not acquired the boxes, which will in turn lead to colossal losses in advertising revenue for the media houses, he said.

Muite said his clients also were seeking to delay digital migration until they are given licenses to transmit their respective content on unique digital frequencies.

"It is a violation of Article 34 (3) of the Kenyan constitution to compel them to migrate to the digital platform and at the sometime deny them digital licenses and frequencies, thus coercing them to be carried by competitors on terms, conditions and costs set by those competitors," Muite told Sabahi.

According to local broadcast networks, which receive over 80% of viewership, they have been reduced to being content providers only, as they will have to cede transmission of their content for a fee to one of only two providers licensed by the CCK -- Chinese company Pan-Africa Network (PANG) or SIGNET, a subsidiary of the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation.

"This is the reason we are in court to fight an injustice inflicted by CCK to Kenyan investors who have invested billions of shillings over the years in the broadcasting business and signal distribution infrastructure," Muite said. "By denying them a license and frequencies to carry their own legitimate broadcasting business, giving licenses and frequencies to [a Chinese company], and leaving broadcasters at the mercy of foreign competitors, the government has failed."

'Most households ready for migration'

For his part, Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology Fred Matiang'i brushed off claims that households were not prepared for the migration.

"As we talk, most households are ready for migration, contrary to the propaganda war being waged by the broadcasters who fear that digital migration will bring in more TV [channels] that will threaten their dominance in the market," Matiang'i told Sabahi.

According to Matiang'i, digital migration is planned in phases, with the first switch-off phase to affect Nairobi and neighbouring Machakos, Kiambu and Embu counties.

Of the 1.5 million televisions within the radius of the switch-off phase, he said, over 500,000 had already migrated to the digital platform by subscribing to satellite television service providers DStv or GOtv, whereas about 700,000 had bought the set-top boxes.

Matiang'i did not comment, however, on how licensing of the digital carriers was done and if licensing PANG and SIGNET only would limit media freedom in Kenya.

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