Digital broadcast migration on course

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BITANGE NDEMO

The opinion article on the new broadcasting regime in the country entitled ‘Giving frequencies to foreigners wrong’ in the Daily Nation of Wednesday December 11 was, to say least ill informed, premised as it was on wrong assumptions.

The author either knowingly or out of ignorance, created the impression that the Government’s decision to fast track migration from analogue to digital broadcasting is fraught with anomalies. Far, from this erroneous viewpoint, the opposite is in fact true. It is therefore important that the misinformation that could inadvertently mislead the sector and the public be set straight at the earliest opportunity.

It is an indisputable fact that broadcasting the world over is going digital with the deadline for digital migration set for June 2015. While this deadline is the absolute upper limit for the change over, many regions of the world have already made the switch and Kenya is determined to be on the cutting edge of these new technologies by 2012.

It is for this reason that, two years ago, the Government created the Digital Transitional Committee (DTC) with able representation of Media Owners. The Committee has held several consultative meetings whose minutes are well documented. It is therefore either ignorant or malicious for the author to claim that the Digital Terrestrial Television matters have not been inclusive.  

Indeed, it is the Committee that came up with a framework for implementation of the digital migration and recommended that the Government creates a migration vehicle leading to the creation of Signet as a subsidiary of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

During one of the documented meeting of the DTC, members grappled with the challenge of the slow pace of analogue to digital migration.

As redemptive action, the Committee recommended that existing broadcasters take up more channels at a cost while KBC was encouraged to open doors for investors on the platform. Indeed, some of the TV broadcasters operating today are themselves beneficiaries of similar decisions in the past.

In addition, the committee urged the private sector to create a new competing platform to facilitate speedy migration.  The intent was to enhance delivery of local content to attract Kenyans to migrate. Claims that the media has not been involved in the process are therefore either insincere or motivated by other ulterior factors.

During the past one year of piloting the digital platform, local broadcasters did not honour an agreement for development of new, local content as the main enticer for viewers to migrate. Nonetheless, the Government, understanding that frequencies are a national resource, is keen to see how they can be leveraged for development, particularly creation of jobs in the media industry.  

The article sanctimoniously laments the Ministry’s failure "to entrench frequencies licensing and allocation regime into law". Well, media owners have themselves to blame given that one of their own went to court to challenge the new broadcast regulatory and legal framework and with court granting an injunction, the matter remains in abeyance until a verdict is reached.

The media owners can therefore not blame the Government for the unfortunate situation where there is no single licensed broadcaster in Kenya toady.  

The article seems to suggest that KBC has engaged in fraudulent business practices in licensing Smart TV and this seems to be the source of the author’s indignation. An analysis of facts would reveal the opposite. The Kenya Broadcasting Act allows the corporation to enter into business partnerships.  Indeed KBC owns 40 per cent of DSTV, a pay TV channel and has a mutually beneficial contractual agreement with K24, and Kiss TV.

There is therefore nothing out of the ordinary for KBC to go into a business arrangement Smart TV.  Indeed, KBC has no partnership agreements with local broadcasters other than the fact that they were requested to bring in content to be broadcast simultaneously with their analogue frequencies for free while the platform was being piloted.

The broadcast sector should indeed brace itself for competition given that the Signet platform will eventually create more than 600 channels.  Many of these channels will be on free to air (accessed without pay) and with at least 40 per cent local content.  As soon as the court matter is settled, the content regulations will be enforced.

This is already the case in developed countries where thousands of channels have sprung up riding on new technologies. The ground has literally shifted and broadcast players ought to take cognizance of this and accept that the digital march is irreversible.

A major contention of the article is that copyright would be infringed on; this is a contradiction in terms.  Any set top box can access all free to air channels and indeed all broadcasters shall be required to have at least one free to air channel. 

It is therefore not correct to state that poor people will not access TV once they buy a set top box.  The article is indeed a pointer to the fact that content will be a major determinant of success in broadcasting but at the same time it will be a major source of contention.

Given recent development in the broadcast sector which the article quotes, it is clear that the industry is intent on venting off competition.

However, the Government will not sit on its laurels as cartels or monopolies in broadcast content that run counter to the letter and spirit of the constitution get entrenched. In furtherance of the bill of rights in the new constitution, we seek to uphold the principle that any Kenyan of sound mind and means shall be given opportunity to broadcast.

The technology accords us the means to accommodate as many broadcasters as possible, save issues such as national security and quality.  Indeed it is along these policy lines that we have reserved at least one channel for every county.

(Dr Ndemo is the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication).

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