The dig­i­tal mi­gra­tion mess as it is in Uganda

By: Winnie Watera

Ac­cord­ing to the Dig­i­tal Mi­gra­tion pol­icy of Uganda, the main pur­pose of the mi­gra­tion process is to en­sure that all broad­cast­ing ser­vices that are cur­rently de­liv­ered through ana­logue net­work/​tech­nolo­gies are fully repli­cated on the dig­i­tal broad­cast­ing net­work/​tech­nolo­gies with the aim of switch­ing off the ana­logue broad­cast­ing ser­vices at a spe­cific point in time.

Uganda Broadcasting Corporation is being tasked with handling the country’s digital migration.

Dig­i­tal mi­gra­tion has been on the lips of Ugan­dans for a while now, only a few peo­ple have taken it se­ri­ously, but as the June 17th global dead­line closes in, de­bate con­tin­ues to emerge, as to whether Uganda Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion has the ca­pa­bil­ity to be Ugan­da’s sole dig­i­tal car­rier.

It’s hard to deny this was an over­sight on the part of the peo­ple who drafted the pol­icy, dig­i­tal mi­gra­tion for Uganda would have reached greater heights if only com­pe­ti­tion was in­cor­po­rated into this oth­er­wise bril­liant step in the right di­rec­tion. Since time im­memo­r­ial the pri­vate sec­tor has been a ma­jor dri­ving force in con­tem­po­rary Ugan­da’s de­vel­op­ment. There are only four months to the dead­line and that is all the time we need to give our Na­tional Broad­caster the op­por­tu­nity to prove it­self. Kenya cur­rently has up to 3 of its biggest tele­vi­sion sta­tions off air as they try to sort out the dig­i­tal mi­gra­tion is­sues. They were shut off af­ter the dead­line passed on 2nd Feb­ru­ary 2015. We would not like to see the same hap­pen in Uganda come June.

The pol­icy stip­u­lates that UBC be un­bun­dled into in­fra­struc­ture and con­tent, and in a bid to make this pos­si­ble UBC formed Signet to han­dle Con­tent, al­though or­ga­ni­za­tion­ally in­ter­twined, these busi­nesses are ac­tu­ally very dif­fer­ent. They each play a unique role; they each em­ploy dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple; and they each have dif­fer­ent eco­nomic, com­pet­i­tive, and even cul­tural im­per­a­tives. The com­pany is chaired by En­gi­neer Batanda, his rep­u­ta­tion pre­cedes him. He is one of the en­gi­neers who spear headed the setup of the re­known Light House Tele­vi­sion that has been on the scene for a long time. Signet has had its fair share of scan­dals in the re­cent past, from as­sum­ing a dummy li­cense would pass for the real thing to be­ing af­fil­i­ated to Chi­nese and Amer­i­can com­pa­nies. How­ever it has ob­tained a pro­vi­sional li­cense.

Dur­ing a Stake­hold­ers meet­ing on dig­i­tal mi­gra­tion held at Ser­ena on 20th Feb­ru­ary, a lot was said. What caught my at­ten­tion was the Na­tional Broad­cast­ers pre­sen­ta­tion by Mr. Kin Kar­risa, who spoke on be­half of broad­cast­ers in Uganda. He spoke on the some­what ex­ag­ger­ated car­riage fees US$5000 for Kam­pala and US$2500-3000 stretch­ing out. With these fees it would be pos­si­ble for a broad­caster to up­grade their al­ready ex­ist­ing masts and be able to carry their own sig­nal. Im­por­tant to note is Uganda Com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­mis­sion gave UBC a grant un­der the Rural Com­mu­ni­ca­tion De­vel­op­ment Fund to make this pos­si­ble. UBC can re­think these fees.

The dig­i­tal di­vide has also caused a lot of con­tention in this jour­ney, ac­tivists, MPs and the gen­eral pub­lic have asked the ques­tion, “what hap­pens to the com­mon man down in a re­mote vil­lage who can­not af­ford a tele­vi­sion set, let alone a set-top box pop­u­larly known as a de­coder?”  This is an im­por­tant group to con­sider. Uganda is one of the poor­est na­tions in the world, with 37.7% of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing on less than US$1.25 (UGX3,592) a day. So how will they af­ford these de­coders that go for about UGX 120,000?

The pol­icy has a road map with the Phase I deal­ing with Kam­pala. This has been com­plete since 2013 with masts in Kololo. The sig­nal ex­tends 60 km out­side, phase II deals with 17 sites that al­ready have UBC masts, the third phase will be gap fill­ing. Phase II and III will cater for these plus the fun­da­men­tal rules of de­mand and sup­ply will iron out any dif­fer­ences, sooner than later these set top boxes will be af­ford­able for every­one. Cur­rently a set-top box known as Star­Times Light is avail­able at a mar­ket price of US $2.8 in the coun­try. Cus­tomers would be re­quired to pay an ini­tial sub­scrip­tion fee of US$14.5, which en­ti­tles them to seven months of dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion ser­vice.

Note­wor­thy, are the res­o­lu­tions of the meet­ing, that every­one should play their part, gov­ern­ment should avail ad­e­quate funds for the roll out of the pro­ject (Mem­bers of the Par­lia­men­tary bud­get com­mit­tee promised to avail funds). UCC as the reg­u­la­tor should har­mo­nize on li­cens­ing and pro­vide low cost widely avail­able set top boxes that ful­fil the min­i­mum re­quire­ment. UBC as the sole sig­nal car­rier sub­si­dize its car­riage fees, pri­or­i­tize mas­sive pub­lic and con­sumer aware­ness and ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of pub­lic pri­vate part­ner­ships. We as Ugan­dans, de­velop our own lo­cal con­tent to be put on the free to air chan­nels.

The idea of UBC be­ing our sole dig­i­tal dis­trib­u­tor is not so far­fetched, the cor­po­ra­tion has stood the test of time since 1963. How­ever, em­pha­sis should be di­rected to UBC’s com­plete au­ton­omy af­ter the dig­i­tal mi­gra­tion. This is some­thing that the other Na­tional Broad­cast­ers at the mo­ment do not seem to agree to.