Sunday, February 15, 2015

Digital TV Migration -Don't punish the poor to watch basic TV!

Late last week, the highest court in Kenya, the Supreme Court, delivered a ruling that allowed the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) to implement the switch off of the analogue broadcasting frequencies and migrate to digital platform. 

Prior to the ruling, Kenyans have witnessed a tough tussle between three leading Television stations in Kenya - NTV, KTN, and Citizen- and the Communications Authority of Kenya over migration of broadcast signals from analogue to digital platform. Kenya, like other members of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is required to migrate to the digital broadcasting by end June 2015.

So why all the fuss over digital broadcasting? 

Many will agree with me that there are immense benefits of the migration including freeing more frequencies that can be used in rolling out other telecommunications infrastructure (multichanneling is possible as one frequency can transmit several channels), and allowing more variety of content for Television viewers.  Also, the quality of the pictures and the sound in digital broadcasting is much better than in analogue broadcasting. In the last few months, a number of new local Television stations have come up as a result of the digital platform, even though many lack quality programming and professionalism, it is a step in the right direction.

The United States was first to broadcast multichannel digital television signals by satellite in 1994, and since then this form of television service has been expanding. In Europe, multichannel digital television of a similar type has been broadcast since 1996.  In the field of digital terrestrial broadcasting, a television service based on the DTV (Digital TV ) system and including high-definition television (HDTV) has been operating in the United States since November 1998. In Europe, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began a multichannel service for standard television slightly earlier in September 1998 using the European system, called Digital Video Broadcasting Terrestrial (DVB-T). The DVB-T system is what has been adopted in Kenya and many other African countries.

The cost

Television sets with inbuilt ability to receive digital terrestrial signals are not popular partly due to the cost-they cost approximately over 40% higher than the normal TVs. Even in many developed countries, TV consumers rely on set top boxes that are connected to the TV sets to enjoy their favorite television content. In Kenya, price of a DVB-T set top box ranges from approximately KES 3000 ($32) to KES 5000 ($55). Even though the government has argued that many TV owners can afford this cost, the devil lies in the details.

Lack of adequate public awareness

Several privately owned TV service providers took advantage of the lack of awareness to sell to Kenyans set top boxes that required a subscription service in order to watch any content. On paper, CAK has said that all providers should broadcast Free to Air (FTA) content from local stations for free, this is not the case in reality. ZUKU, StarTimes, and GOTV have been selling set top boxes that require consumers to pay in order to access basic TV. A good number Kenyans who were lured of the benefits of digital broadcasting and threatened with the deadlines set by the CAK, rushed to buy set top boxes from service providers, only to realize that they cannot access local stations without paying monthly subscription fees. To my knowledge, Bamba TV is among the few providers that has openly stated that it will not charge any fees for its consumers to access TV content.

For some Kenyans, spending any more cash monthly in order to view their favorite TV content is a luxury which they cannot afford.

Why basic TV should be free

There is a saying that 'pictures don't lie and you can forget words but not pictures'.

As I was growing up in a rural village in Kenya, TV was indeed a luxury and many people could not afford even the cheapest TV sets in the market. As a child, my siblings and I could only sneak out of our home to the nearby local market to watch our favorite teams play in the football World Cup. The feeling of watching the occasional football games on a small 14-inch Black & White television set, in a dark crowded room will forever remain alive in me and many other people. While I was in high school, my parents purchased the famous 'GreatWall' black & white television set. This opened a whole new dimension for me, I could relate the things I read in newspapers and in books to the pictures I could see on TV. I could watch what was going on in different parts of the world and relate to my own experiences. It sparked a whole new imagination- a desire to grow up and travel the world, to meet great people, to learn from other countries and create solutions that can be applied in my own community, desire to one day live a decent life with access to running water, proper lighting, decent housing etc, and a vision to contribute in improving governance and leadership in my country Kenya and in Africa. 

Access to information is a basic right. Informed citizens can make better choices with their own lives and also elect better leaders. Liberalization of the media and enhancing freedom of expression has played a big role in the democratization and social-economic development of Kenya and many other countries in the world. People who do not have access to the internet rely solely on mass media to access information. Through television, Kenyans have been inspired to do greater things, they have watched their favorite athletes; which has enhanced a sense of national pride, and seen the ugly faces behind corruption, and bad leadership. TV has played a big role in educating Kenyans on agriculture and healthcare eg some rural farmers are able to learn better farming practices through Citizen TV's Shamba-Shape Up program. Investigative programs such as Mohammed Ali's 'Jicho Pevu' have been instrumental in igniting public debate that is necessary in developing the country.


Digital migration is important and mandatory and any country cannot afford to be left behind. CAK should have done better in creating public awareness so that consumers can be aware of which kind of set top box they are buying. On the other hand, the three media houses (NTV, KTN and Citizen) should have been in the forefront of educating the public and provide their own set top boxes to consumers before the deadline set by CAK. They are crying foul too late when they had the time and the advantage of huge market from the on set.

More importantly now, government of Kenya, through Communications Authority (CAK) should enforce rules where all TV service providers MUST air local FTA content for free. This should apply to both terrestrial and satellite providers including ZUKU, StarTimes, GoTV, DSTV among others. This will ensure anybody who has any type of set top box from any provider to still enjoy their favorite local stations including the three (NTV, KTN, Citizen) without paying any monthly fee.

Let us not deny poor Kenyans their right to access information even as we implement the much needed digital migration.

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