By Ivan .N. Baliboola
July 2014 has been set as the digital migration deadline for Uganda amidst a looming crisis over its implementation by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).
With UCC’s current ineffective communication and sensitisation work plan; we will certainly never get there. Websites, newspapers, and fliers do not guarantee awareness with most messages in English. People in remote areas of this country will be left out. Such information gaps have also given pay- TV-firms a chance to make a kill.
UCC got it wrong on the official deadline for digital migration. It is an ignored fact even by the media, the 2006 Treaty allows for an additional five years for a total of 30 African nations beyond the 2015 cut-off point. The resolution on this apparent deadline was adopted in 2006 at a meeting referred to as the Regional Radio Communications Conference (RRC-06), and agreed by 101 nations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It is erroneous for African countries to think that they have to meet the deadline for finishing the process by 2015.
Fruits of digital migration in Africa are not that important. The same financial resources for this process could instead be allocated to local content development, community media and advancing satellite TV. Channel 44 is a Ugandan TV on satellite which means that anyone around the world with the right satellite connection can watch that channel. The cost of purchasing and installing this satellite is a one off and no need to pay monthly subscription because it is free to air.
UCC is a threat to universal access and affordability of TV and radio signals in Uganda. The set-top gadget required to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting signal is still ‘works in progress. There is no known stockist as yet. UCC’s Vision of a Uganda in which development is facilitated through universal access to communications services largely delivered through the private sector has not been utilised. However, disagreements on who should be the independent signal distributor were ignored by UCC. UBC has already shown signs of conflict of interest. It was the only TV station during the installation of the digital migration equipment in Kololo. At least it would be off to show fairness.
UCC has not worked with the private sector to market, manufacture or import cheap set –up boxes but has continued to promote the use of Pay-TV decoders. This is an expensive option to an average Ugandan. The high cost of decoders and a rushed process has affected digital TV signal uptake in Tanzania. A recent survey by Tanzania media stakeholders found about 500,000 decoders were in use against the estimated three million TV sets owned by households as of March this year. The decoders being sold by Pay-TV firms in Uganda only allow viewers who have paid subscription fees to access television channels. None of these pay-TV decoders have all the local free to air TV channels. Consumers do not have to buy different decoders to access local channels from different broadcasters. Why would UCC endorse local pay-TV firms with known concerns on quality and limited coverage?
Currently, UCC operates without a law on digital migration. The law would help check on piracy , create a system for fair display of competing programmes, distribution of the digital signal, blocking of some channels for adult related content during certain times, whether a decoder can be switched off for non-payment of subscription TV and/or licence fees, or if it is stolen. We need a law to force all Pay–TV firms to have all local channels as a way of promoting local content.
Little time has been allocated for dual illumination-- running two sets of signals simultaneously, analogue and digital. UCC needs to allocate two years for dual illumination. Consumers may not have adopted the technology by the time of desired switch of July next year. Even in the US, this outcome forced the administration to delay analogue TV switch-off for six months in 2009.
Government, through UCC, has the greatest role to play in actualising digital migration and generally giving direction to the industry.
Ivan .N. Baliboola
PR and Online media specialist