At least 30 African countries have been allowed to extend their migration to digital broadcasting beyond the June 2015 global deadline after citing challenges.
Kenya’s communications regulator is, however, unwilling to consider that option, even as the current stand-off between it and broadcasters has the majority of the country’s viewers without access to television.
The challenges cited in a report compiled by Prof Guy Berger, a lecturer at Rhodes University, South Africa, include technology, standards, licensing, investment in infrastructure and the need for viewers to replace their television sets.
North African countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco which, ironically, are more advanced technologically than East African countries that are aiming to beat the deadline, are on the list. Closer home, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have received extensions.
“There will be no extension,” Communications Authority of Kenya director-general Francis Wangusi declared. “The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has divided the world into three regions. Africa, like Europe, belongs to Region One and must migrate by 2015. Europe has so far migrated.”
On February 14, the CA disabled the analog transmission of the country’s three biggest media houses, Nation Media Group, Standard Group and Royal Media Services, which between them control 80 per cent of viewership nationally. This followed a court ruling that the migration should proceed as scheduled.
Consequently, the trio has remained off air, raising concerns about the public’s constitutional right to information. The three media houses are seeking to be allowed to continue with analog broadcasting up to the end of May, when they expect to have set up their digital infrastructure.
“If the wrangles prevail, it would be good for Kenya to seek an extension like other African countries did,” said John Sibonga, an IT consultant. “Surely, the deadline is not cast in stone.”
Mr Sibonga added that the ITU listed the period between June 2015 and year 2020 as the transition era to allow African countries and some states in Latin America and Asia to migrate smoothly.
In his report on the challenges and perspective of digital migration in Africa, Prof Berger cautioned African countries against rushing to complete the migration by 2015, “when there is not a pressing matter of frequencies, when many are exempted from the ITU deadline and when the consequences of missing the due date are minor.
“Delaying digital migration, in the view of some, is depriving African audiences of extra TV offerings for them to choose from, but, as mentioned, African broadcasters can barely fulfil their current potential on analog TV channels.”
More channels available
The don asked: “Technically, more channels are available on a digital signal; practically, who is going to supply and pay for the content?”
However, Mr Wangusi said Kenya had made a commitment to adhere by the ITU deadline and would not seek an extension.
“We have to migrate or else we will be required to remove transmitters that are within 20 kilometres from international borders since we will be interfering with broadcasting signals of neighbouring countries that will have migrated,” said Mr Wangusi.
“This can attract sanctions, or even fines, if we do not do so.”
The DG also insisted that Kenya is ready for digital migration, adding that more than 1.2 million households have purchased set-top boxes and can therefore access channels on the digital platform.
“The market has more than two million set-top boxes in stock with more to be imported,” he said. “The estimated number of television sets that need to be migrated are four million.”
The three media houses, operating under the Africa Digital Network (ADN) consortium, however, say it could take them about three months to import equipment and set up the required infrastructure.
“We had to get the frequencies first to enable us to know what kind of transmitters we need and then make an order,” said a source from ADN.
“All this takes time, which CA does not want to grant us for now. An extension of up to April is still within the June 2015 deadline.”
The consortium plans to spend more than KSh800 million ($8.9 million) on broadcast infrastructure and another KSh4.5 billion ($50 million) on set-top-boxes. However, there are concerns that the standoff could result in job cuts in the broadcast industry if it drags on for too long.
The standoff forced the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) to postpone the launch of its draft referendum Bill, citing the ongoing television blackout. Cord said there could be no amendment of the Constitution without the people and there could be no people without the media.
The Association of Practitioners in Advertising in Kenya has also sounded a warning that the blackout of the top television channels would cause a major revenue loss on TV advertising — which was valued at Ksh41 billion ($460.7 million) last year — with ripple effects on advertisers, broadcasters and the economy in general.
The CA is yet to grant ADN the self-provisioning infrastructure licence it needs to begin operations. The regulator argues that the consortium is yet to meet all the registration requirements, a statement the three media houses dismiss as inaccurate.
Available documents show ADN was registered in August last year as a limited company but CA insists that the consortium must produce a CR 12 (a document that details the ownership of the company) and a tax compliance certificate.
“We cannot issue the self-provisioning infrastructure licence before we get these documents and each of the media houses will be required to individually apply for a TV broadcasting licence to cover the content aspect for free-to-air content,” said Mr Wangusi.
In addition, the official said, the set-top boxes that ADN intends to import will only be allowed after a sample is given to CA and the Kenya Bureau of Standards for quality evaluation to ensure it meets the required standards.
ADN views the numerous requirements as hurdles being put in its way to frustrate its efforts to push for a free and vibrant media, but stresses that it will abide by all the laws of the land.
By Jeff Otieno, Scola Kamau and Trevor Analo