Kenya bulldozes its way to digital television

While South Africa continues to struggle, Kenya implemented a switchover from the analogue TV broadcasting platform to the digital platform in Nairobi yesterday.

The Kenyan development, riddled with major challenges, will be closely watched in South Africa. The South African path towards digital terrestrial transmission (DTT) has also been hobbled by legal challenges as players jostle for a share of the market. The latest policy update released by the cabinet in early December 2013 have drawn strong worded objections and threat of legal action from a group of key stakeholders including the public broadcaster South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), pay television firm MultiChoice, National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic Components (Namec) and the Association of Community TV in South Africa (ACTSA).

Reports from Kenya said the Nairobi switchover will then be followed by an incremental development that promises to deliver a universal switchover, not universal access, by June 2014.

The Kenyan move, a brave venture to some and a bulldozed initiative to others, sees the east African country join Tanzania in the sub-Saharan region’s path towards DTT.

The Kenyan development can also be seen as the beginning of the last minute rush by the African continent to meet the international DTT switch over deadline of 17 June 2015. In this last minute rush, certain key issues and interests are going to be trampled as is evident in South Africa and in Kenya. The region has missed a self-imposed deadline of December 2012 which would have allowed for countries to address glitches in approaching the 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

In Kenya, the government through the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) bulldozed a protest by the country’s three private free to air TV broadcasters to implement yesterday’s switchover. Kenyan media firms Standard Group, Nation Media Group and Royal Media Services. The three firms which own free to air TV stations KTN, Citizen and NTV respectively have been looking to postpone the switchover until certain issues are addressed. These operations are said to account for more than 80% market share.

The three broadcasters had taken their objections to court but have so far lost the battle. A High Court ruling made by Justice Majanja on Tuesday dismissed their objections as a selfish venture which must not be allowed to stand in the way of Kenya’s determination to meet the 2015 switchover deadline. Reports from Kenya are suggesting that the three broadcasters will escalate their battle to a higher court.

The three broadcasters are mainly protesting about two issues, signal distribution and set top boxes (STBs) as reflected in a statement they issued this week.

Signal Licence

The three Kenyan media firms have expressed concern over the organisation of the signal distribution for DTT. Two entities have been given licences to distribute the DTT signal at a fee. These are the state owned Signet and a private firm of Chinese origin Pan African Network Group. Reports from Kenya suggest that the media firms were hoping to become signal distributor themselves are expressing concern that this arrangement poses a threat to their intellectual property rights and editorial independence. Part of the argument is, the arrangement makes it easy for government to switch off broadcasting it deems inappropriate.

Set Top Boxes (STBs)

The firms have also expressed concern that Kenya is not ready for the switchover due to the insufficient distribution and pricing of STBs to households. The STBs are needed by households to access DTT. Figures reported suggest that Kenya which has a population of about 44 million people and Television sets of way above 2 million has seen a take up of less than 30000 free to air STBs. The issue appears to be pricing of the STBs above the affordability of average Kenyan households. The free to air STBs are estimated to going for about 3000 Kenyan Shillings. Unlike South Africa where government has promised subsidise STB’s for poor households, Kenya has not entertained the subsidisation calls.

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