Kenya: Stormy digital migration voyage
Early last year, officials of the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) were required to make a presentation to the Kenya Revenue Authority to make a case for the need to scrap taxes on set-top boxes (decoders) as a way of making them more affordable to Kenyans.
This, they would argue, would enable the country to beat the deadline for migrating the television industry from monologue to digital transmission. As the CCK officials unloaded their stuff, someone who saw their state-of-the-art digital flat screens remarked that digital migration was indeed a thing of the well-to-do not and not the poor. On hearing that, the officials knew that their plan could backfire.
They abandoned the flat screens. Instead, they decided to fix the set top box on an old TV set they found at the KRA offices. The tax officials were stunned at what they show. That marked the end of the 25% tax on decoders. Speaking at a recent dialogue on digital migration in Dubai, Daniel Obam, an ICT policy expert at the CCK, said the Kenyan experience is a perfect example of the challenges that still beset the digital migration journey of many African countries.
Indeed, the CCK was invited to the dialogue - organized and funded by Multichoice and DStv - because of its apparent success in pursuing the June 17, 2015 international target for migrating from monologue to digital television broadcasting.
Though as a bloc, the five-member countries of the East African Community, had settled on a December 2012 deadline which they all failed to beat, Kenya, despite a few setbacks, is on track to beat its own December 13, 2013 analogue switch off date for Nairobi and its environs. The coastal region, and western parts of the country will be switched off at the end of March 2014 while all other regions will migrate by end of June 2014.
The tax exemption is among a raft of policy measures aimed at making the devices affordable. It will see the cost of set top boxes – which retail at between KShs 3,000 and KShs10,000 (UGX 90,000 and UGX 300,000) – fall by 25% in what is expected to boost their uptake as the country races to meet a regional deadline for switch-over to digital broadcasting next year.
The decision to scrap taxes on set top boxes, which was a regional initiative agreed upon in early 2012, was aimed at making them more affordable for poor citizens ahead of planned switch over.
Kenya, would have been even further ahead of her regional counterparts had it not been pressure from a consumer rights watchdog Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek), which successfully secured a court order halting the process, thus prompting it to push its switch-off date from December 2012 to September 2013, then October then December. Despite, it is still way ahead of Uganda, whose earlier fizz has quietly ebbed, with the country now looking at the 2015 deadline along with the majority of African countries.
Migration to digital TV production and transmission is a global project for all broadcasters to change from analogue to digital. The migration, experts argued, would enable viewers to get high quality content apart from expanding opportunities for mobile TV and commercial wireless broadband services among others as a digital dividend. This is expected to make the Internet a lot cheaper than it is currently.
But at the conference, experts said the June 15 cut-off date was way too “over-ambitious” for Africa so the more realistic date should have been 2020, according to Russell Southwood, an official from Balancing Act, a UK-based organisation. Most African delegates attending the conference agreed. They cited the high cost of set top boxes, the other competing priorities, the poor infrastructure and the inadequate public information and education systems as the cross-cutting hurdles that could still make even a 2020 deadline a far off dream.
But also lack of relevant content, was cited as the most important element in generating motivation to migrate. Others said pressure from an impending deadline was also a good motivation.
For instance at the beginning of August this year, all local TV stations apart from UBC TV went off air as UBC set up digital transmitters at its mast in Kololo. Only those with decoders could watch TV. The frantic rush for decoders at GOTV outlets in the city could indeed have alerted the regulators about the importance a cut-off date as a good incentive.
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