Safaricom puts sale of Big Box digital decoders on hold

Mr Bob Collymore at the launch of the ‘Big Box’
Mr Bob Collymore at the launch of the ‘Big Box’ on May 8 in Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU |   NATION MEDIA GROUP

Safaricom has suspended the sale of its Internet-enabled digital TV decoders to allow for software upgrade barely three months after its launch.

Chief executive Bob Collymore told the Business Daily the suspension was due to realisation that the Wi-Fi software in the decoders was not strong enough to support indoor Internet access.

Dubbed ‘The Big Box’, the 4G-enabled device incorporates data and Pay TV services, more than 30 free-to-air channels, TV recording capability, and USB and SD media playback for pictures, music and videos.

Mr Collymore said Safaricom would also offer free software upgrade for its 1,500 subscribers who had purchased the Big Box since its launch in May.

The upgraded decoders will be available in the market by end of September.

“We suspended the sale of the decoders a couple of weeks ago. We are currently doing software upgrade. The decoders had issues but the biggest one was on Wi-Fi which was not going through the walls,” said Mr Collymore in a telephone interview.

Subscribers can buy the decoder through two payment plans. The first option, with free-to-air channels, involves a six-month instalment plan that comprises an initial payment of Sh4,999 followed by Sh999 monthly instalments. The second option requires a one-off payment of Sh9,999 providing access to free-to-air channels.

Both come with 6GB Internet bundles every month for six months.

Both packages also offer free YouTube streaming for the first three months. The decoder is built to run on Safaricom’s 3G connection which is available in most parts of the country and its 4G network in Nairobi and Mombasa.

The device has an in-built SIM card whose number is used to buy bundles. Through a monthly data bundle option, subscribers can buy up to 50GB bundles for Sh4,000. The lowest cost for monthly bundles is Sh999 for 6GB.

Safaricom is betting on the demand created by the migration of analogue TV broadcasting to digital platform to drive sales of the decoder. Out of the 3.2 million households that have access to digital television, an estimated 2.4 million are not using any of the set top boxes in the market.

Currently, only Wananchi Group’s Zuku offers voice, Internet and broadcast as a package. Before the migration to digital broadcasts, the TV business required significant investment that saw only a few stations dominate the airwaves.

In early August the Communications Authority of Kenya gave anyone with objections to Safaricom being awarded the licence 30 days to present his or her views to the regulator. If approved the licence will enable it to operate a commercial free-to-air TV station, stepping up competition for established broadcasters.