Hurdles for Uganda digital migration
By Omondi Julius Odera, Kampala, Uganda
Uganda’s ambitious plan to roll out to digital transmission by 31st December 2012 may be a myth given the underlying financial and structural challenges.
The country set out this deadline to meet the requirements of its counterparts in the region (East Africa Community), although the international deadline for the process is June 2015.
The strides that have already been made are worth noting, say the authorities. David Kiirya the PR in the ministry of Information Communication Technology, notes: “A policy has already been developed and approved by the cabinet and this will go a long way in guiding the whole process.”
In addition, the government has also laid out draft standards for the project implementation. However the private stakeholders in the industry feel not enough progress has been made.
Tina Wamala, the Public Relations Officer of Multichoice Uganda, notes: “More needs to be done regarding passing legislation to regulate the sector and deciding on digital standards something our neighbors like Kenya have already done.”
Kiirya adds that there have been sensitisation campaigns by various stakeholders to the public in order to prepare the people for the imminent change and it has been well received given the benefits that are set come in with the process.
Wamala says: “The Government has done significant work as regards sensitising the public and raising awareness about the impending digital migration”
However, she challenges the government to work closely with the private sector to find areas of common ground where they can help each other speed up the process. “For instance, private operators already have well developed Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) infrastructure in the central region which the government should take advantage of by using the resources they would otherwise deployed in the central region upcountry where virtually no DTT infrastructure exists”, she notes.
The government’s commitment to the project is undermined by its meager funding into it. This is noted by various authorities in the sector. “We hope that this month (April) we are to start major activities but this mainly depend if there are funds because we have had consistent inadequate funding and yet the whole process is a very expensive venture” notes Kiirya. However, he adds that if the finance problem persists, the government may be forced to try other avenues to source the funds maybe through the donor countries.
There has been little effort by the government to ensure that the end user’s acquire the Set Top Boxes. Arineitwe Simon, the Public Relations Officer of Star Times, a digital pay TV company in Uganda, laments: “Given the high cost of these gadgets and the low levels of incomes in Uganda, one would expect that the government would provide a subsidy for the end users to acquire them.”
He also adds that most governments that want to embrace this process have in one way or another found a way of subsidizing pointing out to the likes of South Africa which engaged in manufacturing or assembling their own set top boxes and selling them at affordable rates to the common man.
Kiirya alludes to this fact: “I personally believe that in the long run, the government may subsidize these Set Top Boxes so that our wananchi (common man) can also afford them”
The insistence by the government to only have Uganda Broadcasting Corporation as the sole signal distributor is another stumbling block to the project. Many private stakeholders view UBC as a competitor and therefore do not agree with this position. In addition, the national broadcaster has been rocked with a lot of scandals and inefficiency thus undermining it’s authority over this important process.
We have had several meetings with government and made our point clear that the way UBC is handling the whole process may in the long run not deliver the required results and therefore we are requesting for the opening up and having more signal distributors, notes Arineitwe.
Multichoice Uganda agrees: “Our position and that of the other Pay Television Operators is that signal distribution should be opened up to more than one player and a possible provision be made for self-distribution of signals; This will foster competition, eliminate singular supplier dependence and promote quality of services” notes Wamala.
She adds that at the end of it, the real winner will be the end user who will be guaranteed to receive cheaper and more reliable signal - something they are all eager to promote.
However, Kiirya downplays this concern about alleged incompetence of UBC and defends their choice of a single signal distributor.
He says that the government wanted to use UBC as a signal distributor but due to the fact that other players in the industry intervened, it was restructured into two independent bodies: Content provision UBC and Infrastructure UBC. The latter will deal with signal distribution. He adds: “UBC has almost all the needed infrastructure for the project for instance, we have the government satellite at Mpoma in central region and this will help in great deal.”
Although UBC has the government backing of being the sole signal distributor, Kiirya cautions: “We all want the successful implementation of the project and if UBC fails, we shall have to bring on board another signal distributor”
The hurdles does not only lie with the government as Kiirya observes: “We need to have our own local and relevant digital content like creative industries which include software development and films” He also adds that they are facing a challenge of inadequate skilled manpower to exploit and sustain the entire process.
“The stakeholders in the industry however remain very positive and upbeat about the whole process and the set December deadline for digital migration despite the numerous challenges. A policy will be there by December and I believe that entire Central region will be digitised,” notes Kiirya. We have to all commend ourselves for working hard to meet this self-imposed deadline despite the fact that the global deadline is June 2015 adds Mr. Kiirya.
The same views are shared by Wamala: “The deadline is attainable in some parts like central region which has well developed DTT infrastructure. However, the upcountry areas which have little or no DTT infrastructure are unlikely to migrate within the given timeframe.”
She adds: “What we are likely to see at the end of the year is a period of dual illumination whereby digital transmission will coexist with analogue.”