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Fly or Die? Kenya’s Digital TV Migration Conundrum

All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem – Martin Luther King Jr.

Kenya is fast gaining a reputation of being one of the most technologically advanced and ambitious countries in Africa. This has seen Kenya adopting the informal moniker of being known as the “Silicon Savannah” which has as many supporters as it does detractors. However, one thing is certain, Kenya is one of the epicentres of early technology adoption in Africa as evidenced by the massive uptake of mobile technology including broadband mobile Internet and mobile money, not to mention the many technology innovations that are increasingly developed in Kenya and being adopted globally.

Therefore, it comes as something of a surprise that Kenya is struggling in the area of Digital Television (DTV) being adopted on a nationwide basis. This has led to delays in switching off the current analogue broadcaster signals due to the challenges in getting consumers to buy DTV compliant set-top boxes for free-to-air TV channels. Indeed, its been widely speculated that to-date less than 10% of Kenyan households nationwide have purchased the DTV compliant set top boxes (STBs) even though the following analogue to digital switch-over schedule was announced by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK):

  • Phase 1: 13th December 2013 in Nairobi
  • Phase 2: 30th March 2014 in Mombasa, Malindi, Nyeri, Meru, Kisumu, Webuye, Kisii, Nakuru and Eldoret
  • Phase 3: 30th June 2014 in all the other sites 

From where I stand, and factoring in all the protracted delays in the switch-over process, it seems ambitious to me that ALL TV signals in Kenya will be digital in just over a years time. The problem is further compounded by the fact that most of the DTV STBs are selling for anywhere between Kes. 3,000.00 to Kes. 6,000.00 which is out of each for the majority of Kenyan consumers. Imagine how expensive this will be for the average home in the deepest and furthest reaches of rural and poor Kenya? How will they meet these STB acquisition costs? Will they also become a part of the digital have nots? Indeed, in this day and age, and, at the very least, TV is a basic human right.

However, all is not lost in terms of various incentives that the Government in Kenya has put into place to drive the adoption of DTV STBs. The CCK this week reaffirmed that there are no taxes on the set top boxes and they have also type approved over 26 models of the devices. In addition, CCK lowered the minimum required standards for the set top boxes so that lower cost versions could be made available to consumers in the country.

Going forward, the truth be said is that Kenya badly needs to make this migration so that consumers will not only have access to better TV in terms of picture quality, content variety and even interactive functionality – it also means freeing up much needed radio spectrum for the introduction of 4G mobile data services in Kenya.

You see, already, Tanzania and Uganda in the region have already launched 4G mobile data services whilst Kenya watches on the sidelines. Unlocking 4G data services in Kenya is a socio-economic imperative for Kenya to maintain its technology leadership on a global scale. Therefore, the sooner the DTV transition happens the better, even though the truth be said there will be much pain in doing so for the average consumer in Kenya.

The last time in recent history that I recall a major mandatory technology adoption curve in Kenya has to be when the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) introduced the Electronic Tax Registers or ETRs for short. At the time, everyone seemed to think it was not realistically feasible in time for the deadline. Indeed, many businesses were caught off-guard when they could no longer invoice or receipt for products and services without a KRA approved ETR.

The KRA ETR transition was especially painful for small businesses since they needed to spend a minimum of Kes 40,000.00 or so back in those days to acquire the ETRs. However, once the transition was firmly in place, it was indeed a fly or die moment – either you got on-board or your business could effectively have died as a result of non-compliance. I suspect this is the same thing that is going to happen with the DTV migration.

Its certainly a fly or die moment and hence a conundrum for Kenya. Will the Government step-in and heavily subsidise the purchase of DTV STBs for Kenya’s poorest? Will the analogue to digital switch-over be delayed further or not? How will the inclusion of the majority of Kenyans be achieved under these circumstances? Lastly, can we really afford to wait any longer for 4G before the impact is felt as we start to lose our technology-driven competitive edge? Only time will tell.

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