The Independent (Kampala)

25 August 2014

Uganda: Digital Migration At Crossroads

With the Dec.31 deadline for Ugandan TV owners to switch to digital television looming, the level of ignorance in the population about the issue is unbelievable. Yet, having failed to meet the previous deadlines, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has stated that there will be no more extension if it is to beat the June 17, 2015 international deadline.

Countries that do not meet the international deadline to switch off their analogue will have to bear with the interference from their neighbors who have completed the process because the International Telecommunications Union will no longer be available to arbitrate or intervene as is the case is at the moment. For now, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania have already implemented their analog switch off, at least partially.

Irene Karungi, a retailer at Kasubi, a Kampala suburb, says she is not bothered and is ready to have her TV switched off because she cannot afford the decoder and the monthly subscription fees, which she says are expensive.

To her, migration means buying a decoder from one of the pay TV service providers, which she says is out her reach.

When the first deadline was announced almost a year ago, Aziiz Kasirye, a vendor at Kisekka Market, panicked and bought a decoder speculating that prices would shoot up towards the deadline day. He got frustrated with the service from his pay TV provider and went back to analog.

"Apart from the unaffordable monthly fees, the decoder had very many problems including hazy images and going off completely in case of the rains. I was frustrated but luckily someone bought it; now he is one complaining," Kasirye says almost casually. He vowed not to buy a decoder again saying if they switch off he'll watch movies on his DVD player.

A mini survey by The Independent shows that barely four months to the deadline, people still don't appreciate the essence of the migration apart from the fact that they should start paying for TV services even for free to air TV stations.

Fred Otunnu, UCC's head of corporate communications, says everyone with an analog TV set is required to buy a set top box that will help them convert digital signals into the analog TVs for them to receive some of these free to air televisions. Official figures from UCC show that there are between 2.5 - 3 million TV sets in the country. Of these TV owners, only about 500,000 are connected to a decoder/set top box from any of the seven registered service providers.

Multichoice/GOtv and Star Times share about three quarters of them while the rest go to the other service providers. UCC has recently registered three more service providers, which will provide only settop boxes that are sold once and don't require monthly subscriptions. These cost between Shs 90,000-Shs 250,000 depending on the brand. The set top boxes can provide free digital TV where a viewer is able to watch all the local free to air television stations with excellent picture and audio quality.

In Uganda, the migration was planned to be done in two phases where the first phase covered greater Kampala region (Kampala city and the surrounding districts of Entebbe, Mukono, Bombo, Mityana) - an area covering a radius of 120km from the Kololo base station.

The implementers of the migration (UBC and UCC) are in the second phase and working around the clock to ensure that all Ugandans are enjoying digital television by the end of the year.

Will we beat the deadline?

Angello Nkezza, the managing director of UBC, says the process was delayed as Uganda adopted a new digital migration standard. "The system was upgraded to T2 from the earlier T1. So UBC had to start the process all over again," he said. Nkezza admits that the Dec.31 deadline might be unrealistic, but they are in the process of upgrading the current 18 UBC sites all over the country from analogue to digital and the process of procuring the supplier of digital equipment is in advanced stages.

Also, the government gave a tax waiver of 25% in import duty for the importation of set-top boxes, which ran from June 2012 to June 2013 but players in the industry complain that the response by the public was low. So far, only 1,000 set top boxes have been sold. Christine Nagujja, an official of Star Times, says they have recorded an 180,000 subscriber base but still face a challenge of people effecting their monthly subscriptions saying that people can only pay in peak seasons like during the world cup and other games. This is because in many places, the quality of the signal is almost like that picked from the decoder, which makes people not to see the need for a set top box. Nagujja says that Ugandans have a tendency of doing things at the last moment and therefore she believes that many may buy decoders shortly before the deadline or even within the six months before the international deadline.

She is probably right. In August last year, TV owners got a taste of what is to come when 19 television and radio stations using the signal distribution services of the UBC mast at Kololo were switched off as engineers installed digital transmitters; sending all analog TV sets in the country into a total blackout. Only those with a decoder were able to watch TV. In the three days of the blackout, hundreds of TV owners thronged the offices of the digital TV service providers to buy decoders. However, the majority had no choice but abandon TV because of the high cost involved.

For Star times, the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) decoder costs Shs 86,500 and the cheapest bouquet goes for Shs 16,500 whereas Direct To Home (DTH) decoder, which picks signals using satellite dishes can be bought at Shs 180,000 where the cheapest bouquet goes for Shs 25,000.

Tina Wamala, the MultiChoice Uganda publicist couldn't divulge the number of subscribers on both Dstv and Gotv for marketing reasons but she said the number increased ahead of the recent World Cup in Brazil. The cheapest bouquet on Gotv goes for Shs 18,000 while the cheapest on DStv's goes for about Shs 25,000 per month. TV owners the Independent talked to said these fees are unaffordable to an average Ugandan who sees nothing wrong with analog TV, as yet.

Otunnu admitted that if the switchoff is implemented now, millions of Ugandans would be left out since Ugandans but was still hopeful that Uganda will beat the deadline.

He advised people purchasing decoders to buy those with the DVBT2 technology. DVB-T2 is a digital terrestrial transmission system with the latest modulation and coding techniques to enable delivery of audio, video and data services to fixed, portable and mobile devices.

Also, he said it's a must for every Pay TV decoder to carry free to air channels on their platforms such that people can have access to TV even if their subscription has expired. However, most pay TVs carry only the national broadcaster UBC TV as the only free to air station, though it is not all that popular among TV viewers.

Why the migration?

The push for the switch is informed by the 2006 Regional Radio-communications Conference and the 2006 Geneva Agreement of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), where it was recommended that global broadcasters implement the migration from analog to digital broadcasting by June 17, 2015. The East African Region countries had set their deadline for analog broadcasting on Dec.31, 2013, which date wasn't met.

Otunnu says digital migration is crucial as it will help improve broadcast quality as well as free the currently over-congested spectrum. The freed space (digital dividend spectrum) is expected to be offered to mobile telephone companies to improve their voice and data connections.

"Presence of a digital dividend spectrum would mean that less infrastructure would be required to provide wider mobile coverage, all resulting in lower costs for communication services, especially in rural areas," he explained, adding that delayed digital migration, would mean continued poor mobile phone network in the country, in addition to poor quality of television pictures.

Digital television provides better picture and sound quality as opposed to analog, and it also offers opportunities like multiple programming called multi casting, and interactive capabilities.

Under multi-casting, any existing channel, for instance NTV, will be able to provide many more channels on their own, like NTV - Sports, NTV - News, NTV - movies all as dedicated channels. This means more programming choices for viewers and an opportunity for local content production.

All indicators show that from the remaining two million TV owners, maybe another 300,000 will get set top boxes within the next four months, and probably another 700,000 within the next ten months ahead of the June 17 deadline. For the rest, what will come will come.

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