11 July 2015

Uganda: More Questions Linger As Uganda Migrates to Digital TV Broadcasting

The massive excitement accompanying last week's court ruling directing the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to immediately revert to analogue TV transmission turned into fodder for conversation. In the taxi, the driver and his conductor chanted about how this would give them opportunity to watch free television again. At my usual diner, I heard one gentleman narrate to the waitresses and his company that the court decision was an order to government to stop forcing them (TV users) from buying decoders from Gotv to access TV.

Last Thursday, Grade One Magistrate Moses Ntende Kagoda of the Mengo Chief Magistrates Court issued an interim order to UCC to switch back to analogue transmission until the main application filed by city lawyer Enoth Mugabi, is determined.

Running to court

Mr Mugabi claimed he decided to go to court after he was aggrieved by UCC's move to migrate from the old analogue way of signal transmission to digital and yet he freely enjoyed the old signal transmission, unlike digital signal transmission that requires one to pay a monthly subscription. UCC, however, challenged the decision and was overturned this week on Tuesday. Prior to this, there was a sense of reprieve among the public and some TV broadcasters immediately reverted to analogue transmission.

The list of opinions held by the wider public, notably those who went back home on June 15, when the switch off was piloted, to the displeasure of blank screens, is endless. Almost a month since phase I of the digital switch off was effected, more questions are still being asked.

David Muwonge, a statistician, is one of those who were caught unawares. "I just bought a Gotv kit and decided to move along with modernity," he says. "One thing I am yet to understand is the whole fuss of digital TV because even after UCC says it is an international obligation, it seems they are also unaware of how Uganda stands to benefit."

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)/content providers contend that slightly more than 10,000 Free to Air boxes have been sold to date, while another 10,000 boxes are still in stock.

"In total, this would come to 20,000 boxes, assuming on switch off, all the 10,000 boxes in stock are bought. As per the latest survey from different research firms, Uganda has about 3.2 million TV sets. 20,000 boxes translate to a very limited number of TV viewers, who will have migrated by the switch off date," the NAB chairman Kin Karisa, noted recently in a letter to the Speaker of Parliament.

Several other TV users Saturday Monitor talked to raised questions of the cost of free-to-air set top boxes that UCC is advocating. Although some appreciate the picture and sound quality, they say the content broadcasted is still old-fashioned. The bottom line TV users point out is that they stand to lose out because UCC and TV broadcasters/content providers also do not know what to do. The concerns raised come in the wake of preparations afoot to launch phase II of digital migration.

Sam Batanda, the head of Signet, an affiliate body of Uganda Broadcasting Cooperation (UBC) in charge of digital transmission, says phase II will commence on July 31, which will complete migration in areas such as Entebbe, but largely will cover Arua, Kisoro, Mbarara, Mbale, Masaka and Masindi.

According to UCC, 60 per cent of the television viewers are within the Kampala Metropolitan area in the radius of 60km from the main transmission centre at Kololo. These were switched off in phase I.

Fred Otunnu, the acting director of broadcasting at UCC, told Saturday Monitor their strategy now is to intensify awareness campaigns in phase II. This, he says, will start next week and will include roadshows and radio awareness to demonstrate because the phase mostly covers rural areas.

"It is true there are a lot of issues that have been raised but we have to move forward," Mr Otunnu said. "Moving forward means putting extra effort on areas where digital signal will be switched on next."

In the public court of opinion, majority still maintain the view Uganda was not prepared for digital migration. They wanted the process delayed as did other African countries, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, Algeria have done so. They pushed their deadlines to 2020 to allow for more groundwork. Other East African countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda have already migrated. Tanzania effected digital terrestrial broadcasting in the early 1990s.

Phase III, covering Jinja, Ntungamo, Rubirizi, Fortportal, Gulu, Kiboga, Lira. Kabale and Soroti, will take effect on August 30.

June 17 was the international deadline for all the 198-member nations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Meeting on June 16, 2006 for the Regional Radio communication Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, member states, including Uganda, set themselves this target to transit from analogue to digital technology. ITU is the United Nations agency that allocates radio spectrum and satellite orbits.

Digital Migration or 'switch over' is the name given to the process of changing from analogue terrestrial television, currently used widely, television broadcast services are transmitted on the VHF (Band III) and UHF band (Bands IV and V).

Migration means switching to digital terrestrial television (DTT), where signals are carried on a multiplex, which can carry a number of channels in the same frequency, unlike analogue where frequencies are dichotomised. DTT, according to ITU, means better picture and sound quality, and has potential to increase the amount and variety of television content.

ITU, on its website, says digital migration helps free up the electromagnetic spectrum, which needs to be allocated for other services.

Questions on set top boxes and TV content quality

Ideally, digital broadcasting is intended to give television consumers more content, choice and better quality service, but instead has increased complaints to the regulator to take necessary action against providers who do not meet standards.

Content providers on the other hand are jittery about the cost of set top boxes and their shortage in the country. Shortage of set top boxes, especially the free-to-air decoders, means television viewership is affected. A pay TV set top box costs around Shs50,000, but consumers have to subscribe to access more content. A free-to-air set top box costs between Shs150,000 to Shs180,000.

Against the 3.2 million TV sets in the country, content providers say currently, there is slightly above 20,000 set top boxes in the country, which affects TV viewership.

UCC recently approved 16 distributors of free-to-air set top boxes across the country. Mr Otunnu told this newspaper, however, they have also allowed private broadcasters to import free-to-air set top boxes, which will be sold cheaply.

"Their concern is that set top boxes are unaffordable and some have technical issues. They said they wanted to get into the business of ensuring consumers are not cheated, which we agreed to," Mr Otunnu said. "We did agree on specifications and model types already approved, and these, they said, should be here in a week's time."

For phase II, Mr Otunnu, since its covering rural areas, says they are more emphatic on free-to-air terrestrial broadcasting, where consumers can access "free tv"--notably the 24 local channels broadcasting in the country.

Awareness

Richard Kimera of the Consumer Education Trust (CONSET), an NGO which works on consumer awareness, says the problems facing Uganda's digital switch are misinformation and opposition.

"According to the background, digital migration has been a process. UCC did role out awareness campaigns, which we, the broadcasters and other stakeholders were involved in," Mr Kimeera pointed out. "It is true concerns of some stakeholders, especially the broadcasters, have not been attended to well but it is a process that is continuous."

However: "Consumers have become victims of the different players pulling the rope. But UCC, as a regulator, has the obligation to balance these interests but put the consumers at the front."

UCC's Otunnu (pictured right) equally admitted that it is a "continuous process" but reiterated their stand that there is no turning back to analogue transmission as a country."

Analogue versus digital broadcasting

Analogue. Analogue TV broadcasting transmits sound and picture through airwaves. Each TV station then gets a license for a single frequency that can only carry one channel. This transmission is therefore limited in signal space, spectrum and frequency, leading to poor quality of sound and picture if frequencies are interfered with.

Digital terrestrial television (DTT). Here, signals are carried on a multiplex, which can carry many television channels in the same frequency channel as one analogue television service. DTT takes two standards, including digital satellite broadcasting, which requires use of a satellite dish to capture data transmissions from long distances, offered by service providers such as MultiChoice's DStv and Azam TV, and Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting - provided by pay-TV players and free-to-air set top boxes.

Digital Migration. With digital migration, TV broadcasters/content providers relinquished the responsibility of transmitting their own signals. Signet picks up signals from each of the TV stations and transmits them to a wider spectrum.

Since digital broadcasting take less bandwidth, UCC says it is likely to increase the number of TV channels in the country. This will create room for frequencies for radio, which is already used up. A licence for transmission of a programme/channel around Kampala costs about $4,000 (about Shs13m) and $2500 (about Shs8m) to up country.

Sam Batanda, the head of Signet, an affiliate body of Uganda Broadcasting Cooperation (UBC), in charge of digital transmission, says works on seven sites up country to aid signal distribution are in advanced stages. These include satellite stations in Masaka, Hoima, Mbarara, Mbale, Masindi, and further works on the Kololo mast. This is expected to cost about Shs26 billion. Sites to come on board by August include Lira, Kiboga, Ntungamo, Rukungiri, Rubirizi, Soroti, Gulu and Kabale.

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