Speeding up digital migration in Uganda without leaving citizens behind

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By AL for APCNews

NEW YORK, 03 March 2014

What are the main obstacles to digital migration in Uganda? How will this technical process affect citizens and what are their main concerns? APCNews talked to Moses Owiny, from our member WOUGNET, about the challenges and opportunities the country is currently facing.

APCNews: Do you think that Uganda will meet the international deadline of 2015 for completely migrating to digital broadcasting?

Moses Owiny: Currently, the country is not moving at a speed that would be expected. If you compare Uganda with neighbouring countries like Kenya and Tanzania, we are much more behind. In terms of coverage, we only have the greater area of Kampala, the capital, switched on, while the rest of the country has not gone digital. The regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission, is anticipating that by 21 December this year the whole country will be switched on, but the people from civil society who have been working on the issue don’t think this is realistic.

Why do you think the government is behind schedule?

Since the country committed to digital migration at the International Telecommunication Union’s Regional Radiocommunication Conference in 2006, the government has developed several policies, but there isn’t enough political will to push forward the process. Besides the lack of political will and other problems inherent to governments (corruption, bureaucracy, etc.), we see that there are no efforts underway to put key infrastructure such as digital transmission equipment in place, maybe because the authorities are looking at the next elections and hence this may not be a priority, or at least the politicians would like to reap political capital in all these processes. Another problem is that Uganda has a single signal carrier distributor, the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, which was given the mandate to lead the process for five years. If we had multiple signal carriers, especially from the private sector, probably the speed would have increased.

What is your strategy given this situation?

We know that if we want to influence the process we need to gather evidence, and this is why we’re proposing a study to understand the underlying impediments in all the regions of the country. This document will allow us to engage with the government at a policy level in an informed manner, and to be more effective in our advocacy. We also need to include the regulator, the national carrier and other stakeholders, since so far there has been no advocacy and most civil society organisations haven’t been involved. We also need to sensitise the public about the importance of the issue, and that’s why we’re proposing to organise radio talk shows by region so that the issues of digital migration can be explained to the citizens pretty well.

Digital migration is quite a technical issue. How do you communicate its importance to the public?

We explain to the citizens that there are a lot of advantages migrating from analogue to digital, especially that they, as consumers, will get better quality products (better images and sound). Another benefit is that a lot of spectrum will be liberated, so more media will be able to come on board. There will be more incentives for private companies to invest in these things, and more business opportunities for everyone.

But consumers need to know that the transition will require them to purchase new set-top boxes, or otherwise they won’t be able to benefit from digital broadcasting. Moreover, when the switch happens they won’t be able to use their old appliances to access digital transmission at all, and so they need to understand all these issues surrounding digital migration. Naturally, when we talk to people they have lots of questions: “Does this mean that my old television set is not going to work? What will happen to my decoders, to satellite TV? What if we have two television sets in the house?” People are in fear and panic because they still don’t understand the whole process. We got this feedback at a workshop that we recently organised with the support of APC, where people were telling us via tweets and other online interactions that they need to know more. There’s a pressing need for them have spaces where they can ask questions and understand the impact of digital migration. As civil society, we need to make sure that this process is inclusive, encompassing and appreciated by all stakeholders. We have a key role to play.

What is the government’s response to these concerns?

The regulator has set up guidelines and policies for citizens. They are going to be very strict on what kind of set-top boxes are required for the country. Those who are importing need to make sure that they meet quality standards before they start selling them to consumers, and they need to have approval by the Uganda Communications Commission to operate. Key to this is continuous awareness among the citizens, and they have included this in their time frame, but as civil society we don’t effectively see this as forthcoming.

What are the challenges in terms of content? Will digital migration bring new opportunities, especially for non-commercial and community media?

We’re focusing on fast-tracking the infrastructure process right now. We believe that once we’ve gone digital the issue of content will come. After we transition successfully we’ll be ready to discuss these issues.

What will happen if the deadlines are not met?

We’ll be failing our own commitment as a country to meet the deadline. We need to be more realistic than ever. Otherwise we’ll just rush and go nowhere. It’s our job as civil society to remind the government of that.ç

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