Uganda: Policymakers at odds over DVB-T1 or DVB-T2

Investment

Last month, Aggrey Awori the minister for information and communication technology (ICT) told the media that Uganda is eyeing the Digital Video Broadcasting Terrestrial (DVB T) standard in its migration. DVB T, is the first generation system of relaying audio and video content in digital format. At least 60 countries and 200 million households around the world have embraced this technology according to www.dvb.org. However, some of these are now digging deep into their treasuries to upgrade to the second generation technology which is deemed to be more efficient and more advanced. The new standard is known as DVB T2. Uganda like South Africa and Kenya ought to be thinking in this line, according to broadcasting experts.

Charles Hamya, the general manager MultiChoice Uganda, the DSTV service provider, told Business Power that the first generation digital platform is a far inferior digital standard compared to DVB T2 platform. The platform is said to be between 30-67 per cent less spectrum efficient than DVB T2 which translates into far less channels and a much lower digital yield for the country.

With the help of the internet, these technologies are designed to enable nations to have more broadcasting frequencies than today. For instance, DVB T2 can enable a television station such as NTV to broadcast between 16-25 channels instead of just one channel through one frequency, Mr Martin Abuya, the chief executive officer of Smart TV, told Business Power in an interview last week.

Compared to the first generation platform, DVB T2, offers the best technical performance opening up multi-channel television to a wider audience of viewers and allowing them greater variety in their viewing options. This translates into greater stimulation for both local content and local production industries; increased advertising revenue for broadcasters, as well as greater tax inflows and increased revenues for governments from selling off the extra bandwidth, according to Mr Hamya. "It makes no sense to roll out an inferior platform that is already outdated and will eventually need to be replaced by a superior generation of technology (DVB T2) that is already available," he said in an interview on Thursday.

But on Friday, Eng. Godfrey Mutabaazi, the acting executive director, Uganda Communications Commission overturned the ICT minister's position saying that Uganda will actually adopt DVB T2. "Technology is changing on a daily basis. You can't legislate against technology. DVB T2 is newer than DVB T1," he said in an interview on Friday.

However, the three pilot companies that have been licensed to provide digital terrestrial broadcasting services in Uganda, are already airing their channels through decoders or Set Top Boxes (STBs) that are compatible with only the DVB T and not the DVB T2 technology.

The decoders are used to convert television signals from stations, into digital format to enable viewers with analogues Tv sets, to watch their channels. These boxes currently cost between Shs100, 000 and Shs190, 000 from the three companies on the pilot project including; StarTimes, Next Generations Broadcasting (Smart TV) and MoTV who are all pay-TV service providers.

At a certain point in time, the STBs offered by these firms will be obsolete if the government adopts the DVB T standard between now and December 31 2012. This is because, it will still have to upgrade to the second generation platform.

This means that Ugandans, who acquire the available decoders, will have to replace them to be able to watch television again or risk staring at blank screens in their living rooms. It is estimated that StarTimes, Smart TV and MoTv have sold over 50,000 units in the market and are pushing in more. Mr Abuya said Smart Tv will continue to sell the STBs with a view of exchanging them for its customers when the company is able to bring in affordable DVB T2 boxes. "We will have to take that knock because it is part of business," he said in an interview recently.

On the other hand, broadcasters will have to deal with dual migration and illumination of analogue to digital services, which is unnecessarily costly especially to the end user. Secondly, Uganda would be left behind other countries in the region- like Kenya, which have already decided to adopted DVB T 2, according to Mr Hamya. "With all its advantages, thus in all likelihood they would enjoy the economies of scale brought about by digital television much faster than us." Some of the economies of scale that can be enjoyed include; the reduction of the cost of broadcasting technology such as the decoders, as more companies move to manufacture them to respond to market needs.

Broadcasting experts say that Uganda still has a chance to migrate directly from analogue television to Digital Terrestrial Television via DVB-T2 to avoid any interim stages of transition, thus saving time and money in the long term.

Despite the risks, experts at www.dvb.org suggest that countries that will go ahead and first implement DVB T before implementing DVB T2 will benefit from the use of a mature technology that is flexible enough to meet their individual market requirements.
"In particular they will benefit from the existence of a well-established world market both for receivers (STBs) and for head-end equipment. These conditions will enable the rapid roll-out and take up of DTT services in these countries, with access to very affordable receivers being the key factor." But they argue that it can be expected that in a few years the difference between DVB-T and DVB-T2 STB will be so small that basically only DBT-T2 STBs will be provided. Moreover companies are no longer investing in Research and Development aimed at maintaining the DVB T platform and improving the compatible STBs because they will soon be outdated.

Players like Smart Tv are now urging the government to adopt the DVB T2 platform instead of the first generation technology. "By all means, they should install DVB T2. We are all for it, however, it is still new technology and there are not many suppliers who are supplying it now," Abuya explained.

One of the issues that are slowing down the digital transition process is the installation of digital transmitters and associated equipment by the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC). The public broadcaster was recently given the task of signal distribution across the country because of its reach and monopoly over the best signal sites in the country. However, the corporation has been accused of playing its role at a snail's pace.

As a signal distributor, UBC is required to set up a company that will relay the channels of other television stations to the viewers across the country. In 2009, having UBC as the only signal distributor raised suspicion among broadcasters but it remains the most well placed company to do the job despite its inefficacies. Efforts to get an update from UBC's management about their progress proved futile.

According to Abuya, the rest of Uganda will only be able to enjoy digital television, as fast as UBC rolls out its transmitters. For instance, Smart Tv is ready to operate in districts such as Masaka, Jinja, Mbarara, Masindi, Arua and Gulu, however, it cannot expand to those districts because the signal distributor has not yet covered those areas. "If they roll out in those areas fast, then we will get there, if they don't then we stick to where the roll out is."