Balancing Act (London)

13 February 2014

Uganda On the Brink of National DTT Roll-Out After Greater Kampala Transmission Completed - Funding Issues Hover

London — There's an old saying that the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land. Those countries that sought to be first across the line with the digital transition in broadcasting have - with the exception of Mauritius - all stored up more problems than they have solved. Russell Southwood went to a UCC/APC/WOUGNET sponsored workshop on the transition in Uganda and reports on progress.

There's sort of a phoney war between Governments and their citizens in Africa. Deadlines for things like the digital transition are purposely set early to try and focus political energy. But in reality they have little meaning and several have already come and gone.

Government and regulators tend to look at the mobile SIM registration process where the deadline was postponed several times in most countries before the inevitable happened and unregistered phones were switched off. Governments take the view that the stick is more effective than the carrot when you ask your citizens to do something.

Uganda has already missed its first deadline and has reset it for the end of December 2014. Paul Kihika, Managing Director of government broadcaster UBC (which is the monopoly signal carrier) said it would consider switching off the Greater Kampala area if there were 1 million set top boxes sold. Since there are only 50 test set-top boxes in market already in early February, this makes that deadline seem unlikely. Type approvals should be ready from UCC shortly.

But let's start at the beginning... .UBC has been granted the only five year signal carrier licence by the converged regulator UCC, which is also drafting the new digital content channel licences. Attendees at the workshop found it hard to understand why UBC had been granted this monopoly for signal carriage and were vocal about it.

UBC's ambition is to have national coverage with 28 transmission sites backed up with 40 gap feeders that will cover every town and village in Uganda. This would supply 96 channels in Greater Kampala and 24 channels to the rest of the country. 8 of these channels would be for radio stations.

The total budget for the plan is US$74.6 m but the Ugandan parliament has thus far refused to release funds for the whole plan. Currently there is transmission coverage in Greater Kampala but only enough capacity to deliver 40 channels. There were supposed to be 8 transmitters but there are only 4 so far.

According to Kihika, the whole national transmission project would take 6-8 months in total but now that part of the Greater Kampala work has been done, it should only take 4 months. Kihika said that more funding would come when UBC submitted its budget for this financial year. Uganda is unusual in having funded the transition as most countries have relied on either Star Times or Chinese loan funding.

The transmission area goes out to Entebbe and Miyana on the west, to Luwero north of Kampala and beyond the Mabira forest to the east, about two-thirs of the way to Jinja. In all its's about a 60 kms radius on a line of sight basis. However, the signal at Mukono where the workshop took place 30 minutes outside the city centre was not strong enough to power a demonstration TV bought along for the purpose. The contractor is M/S Harris.

Interestingly, international news channels - BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera - have all indicated a willingness to pay for transmission of their channels. This might yet change the shape of Pay TV bouquets as viewers are likely to find free versions of these channels more compelling thay pay for versions.

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