The huge costs of Digital Migration delays
Uganda’s trek to rid itself of analog technology by the end of 2012 seems to have met more hurdles than it can handle. East African states agreed to a December 31, 2012 deadline to switch off analog for digital transmission 3 years earlier than the global target.
All indications on the ground though show that for Uganda’s case at least, this is unachievable. For one, the lack of an enabling law to guide the process means confusion will continue reigning. A digital migration law, observes an executive in the Ministry of ICT who prefers anonymity, could clearly spell out who does what, with what, when etc which could speed up the process. “Currently we only have a digital migration policy but we don’t have an Act let alone a Bill in place. However, the ICT Minister can issue a Ministerial Policy Guideline which doesn’t have to go to Parliament or Cabinet and the process starts,” notes the official.
The policy states that the national broadcasting signal should be covering 50% of the population by 2010, 80% of population in 2011 and close to 100% by 2012 enabling analog switch off. But Uganda is even nowhere in the vicinity of the 2010 targets. The process entails the formation of a company through which the signals will be routed and then a board is elected which puts together an executive and management structure all time consuming activities. “Developed nations like the USA took up to 6 years to complete the migration so it is impossible for us to achieve the same in less than a year,” says Charles Hamya, the General Manager, MultiChoice, Uganda.
Single or multiple distributors? The Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), notes the policy again, will be the sole signal distributor for 5 years, but this is also causing trepidation amongst other broadcasters (the Association of National Broadcasters) who feel that as a content provider too, UBC could antagonise them while giving itself numerous favours on end. Also a sole distributor, they argue, can leave members exposed especially if it developed technical difficulties. “Competition would ensure fairness. A monopoly is harder to keep in check because it has no competition that is why we need another distributor,” argues Joe Munene the General Manager NTV Uganda. Besides some companies like Smart TV were already given the impression that they would participate in the transmission process once they were given the mandate to test the digital signal with their own equipment, hence were UBC to be the sole distributor, their infrastructure would go to waste. Tanzania has three, while both Kenya and Rwanda have two each.
The ICT Ministry official however thinks there shouldn’t be a problem with one distributor per se but only if that firm was housed under the ministry. “This firm must be public or better still a Public Private Partnership to avoid the inefficiencies of parastatals. The company would own the current UBC equipment and would be under ICT while UBC can stay under the Information Ministry.,” advised the official. “With one distributor you would have the same kind of equipment across the country with content sent on one ‘pipe’. It’s here that a whole new multiplexer studio is set up and it’s linked to all content providers whose content is bundled and sent out in real time. With two distributors, infrastructure duplication is inevitable while the content is likely to be expensive as the private investor seeks to gain on his venture immediately. A PPP though won’t be motivated by profit only,” he adds. For now because such a company is not in place then the December 31, 2012 target is all but a fantasy. Besides, an open bidding process for an equipment supplier can last at least 8 months. Single sourcing is not only very expensive (since competition is non existent) but quality can also not be guaranteed.
So how did we come to this? A Presidential directive to move the UBC infrastructure from the Ministry of Information to the ICT Ministry is said to have been deliberately delayed by then Information Minister, Kabakumba Masiko who had apparently already agreed a deal with Chinese firm Huawei to supply extra equipment needed for the digital migration process. This was to be backed by a $74m loan from Import and Export Bank of China (EXIM) an exorbitant figure that was vehemently questioned seeing that Kenya for instance was spending less than half for a similar venture. Apparently being an ‘NRM outsider’, then ICT Minister Aggrey Awori found it impossible to wrestle the project from Masiko despite his readiness to adhere to the due process. But following continued public outcry, the Finance Ministry halted the flawed procurement process. It was later revealed that some of the equipment ordered, like the masts, were already available clearly pointing to an underlying scheme to defraud.
“We would only need to replace the existing transmitters on the masts with the digital ones hence there is no need for new masts since UBC already has many covering almost the entire country,” notes the ICT Ministry official. Apparently the need to have all the UBC infrastructure under the ICT Ministry was driven by the notion that ICT equipment nowadays is common meaning that the same equipment can be used for various functions e.g. the infrastructure supporting TV can also support police’s TETRA system. “Modern infrastructure cuts across spheres with only the end user equipment dissimilar. So infrastructure duplication across various organisations would in effect be relegated with everything being monitored by the line ministry that of ICT. This would mean optimum usage of the equipment and therefore faster clearance of whatever loan Uganda would have borrowed to invest in the process,” notes the ministry official.
Implications:The East African countries made the decision to move ahead of the pack to reap the Digital Dividend benefits across the region already being enjoyed by countries like Malaysia, Singapore, UK and the USA. The digital dividend refers to the spectrum which is released in the process of digital television transition. When TV broadcasters switch from analog platforms to digital only platforms, part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has been used for broadcasting will be freed up because digital TV needs fewer spectrums than analog TV. The reason is that new digital compression technology can transmit eight digital TV channels by using the same amount of spectrum used to transmit one analog TV channel. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) mainly wants the freed frequency to be used by telecom firms whose ability to guarantee network clarity and offer various services especially data is limited by frequency shortages currently.
If just 25%, or around 100MHz, of the spectrum currently used by analog TV (470 – 862 MHz) was re-allocated to mobile communications, the mobile industry could dramatically speed up the rollout of broadband communications and increase coverage. Enormous socio economic benefits would ensue around the world. Because of its good signal propagation characteristics, a small amount of equipment is required to provide wider mobile coverage, meaning that communications services can be provided in even remote areas at lower cost. Other digital migration benefits include crystal clear TV pictures, surfing the internet or transmitting radio signals via TV.
Also possible will be data casting, where public awareness campaigns (eg immunisation drives) are run via TV as supplement info. Broadcasters like UBC can also become more relevant to the wider public and advertisers since the digital platform allows them to have various channels say UBC 1, 2 and 3 which can for instance run in different languages yet under analog it would need new equipment altogether for each new channel it would want to create. “Digital migration is being encouraged internationally because it will bring about an extra set of frequencies which remain the rarest resource in communication,” notes the ministry official.
Desperate times: With the EAC target unattainable, Uganda has no choice but to re-focus its energies towards beating the 2015 ITU deadline. The country’s interest can however only be served if there exists consensus amongst the various stakeholders leading the migration drive. It helps no one to have the ICT Ministry, UBC and the Uganda Communications Commission pulling in different directions like is currently the case. The UCC Executive Director, Godfrey Mutabazi, who blames both UBC and the government for dragging their feet on the issue, says his organisation is even ready to take control of the project. “We cannot allow the country to fall in television darkness as our neighbours move on. If government cannot release the funds needed for digital migration, UCC will use its capacity to find the money and take the lead,” Mutabazi said.
In the meantime, a deluded Paul Kihika, the Ag MD at UBC (the sole signal distributor) remains optimistic. “Our plan is that by April 2012, Kampala would have been switched from analog to digital. Once we are done with Kampala, then other parts of Uganda will also go digital even before the East African set deadline,” Kihika said at a COMESA conference on digital migration recently. But seeing that even the initial phase in this capital intensive project is not yet undertaken, one can only wonder what he is smoking. Overall, for the project to be successful, government will need to demonstrate more commitment by pushing for favourable laws and tax waivers on equipment like set-top boxes which at between Ushs 0.1m and Ushs 0.3m are quite pricey for the average Ugandan