Speaking before a seven-man bench at the Supreme Court earlier this week, lawyer Paul Muite representing a consortium of media houses, sought more time for his client to comply with TV digital migration rules.
Muite, holding brief for Africa Digital Network (a grouping of local TV stations NTV, KTN and Citizen), asked for four months to enable the consortium to import equipment and set up for digital migration.
He pointed out that existing players in the market who carry digital TV signals for broadcasters had been given plenty of time to set up while ADN had only recently been granted its licence to do the same.
The Communications Authority of Kenya, the industry regulator, gave 31 December 2014 as the deadline for digital migration in Nairobi and February 2 for the major towns in Kenya. The whole process should be complete by end of March 2015.
The three media houses claim foul play. They say that the regulator is showing favouritism for foreign companies like PANG, the company awarded the second licence to distribute digital TV signals in Kenya.
The regulator says the media houses have not only been given the opportunity to participate and failed to take it in the past, they have also refused to be partners in educating the public on the digital migration process by declining to air CAK’s infomercials on the same.
But how did we get here?
In 2001, the International Telecommunication Union, the UN body concerned with information and communication matters through its regional organisations for Europe and Africa sought to come up with more efficient usage of analogue TV signals. That is both the very-high and the ultra-high frequencies, VHF and UHF respectively. Countries opted to use digital transmission in place of the analogue signals for TV broadcasting.
In 2004, the ITU regional conference met to establish the technical standards for digital broadcasting and set a second meeting for 2006 with countries being given homework to implement in the period in between the two meetings.
Kenya, through the then Communications Commission of Kenya, organised a forum of interested parties to put together the country’s position ahead of the 2006 meeting. Dubbed, the “National Preparatory Committee”, it brought together CCK, state broadcaster KBC, the Media Owners Association and the Information and Communication ministry.
The East Africa Community was also roped in to try and harmonise requirements for member countries with a view to compatibility of technologies in the region.
The second regional ITU meeting of 2006 bringing together European and African countries took in country requirements including Kenya, fed them into software provided by the ITU and synthesized the compatibilities between countries using supercomputers provided by CERN ( European Organisation on Nuclear Research).
Where countries were found to have incompatibilities perhaps because of the strength of transmission or antenna height, they were encouraged to negotiate and come to an agreement. The resulting overall agreement of this regional conference held in Geneva came into force on 17 June 2006.
The date is significant as it also gave countries nine years to migrate to the digital environment with the global deadline being set for 17 June 2015.
The Kenyan team sent to Geneva returned home with the recommendation of the formation of a National Digital Migration Task Force. This was to include: ICT ministry, CCK, KBC, Media Owners, Media Council of Kenya, the National Communications Secretariat and its work would be to guide government on the policy and regulations to be adopted for digital migration in the country including a fixed timetable for migration.
The Task Force filed its policy recommendations in 2007 and advised a number of things.
One, the formation of a Digital Transition Committee to oversee the migration process. Secondly, it advised that broadcast signal distributors (BSDs) be licensed to carry the digital TV signals.
It called for the migration process to be done in phases beginning in 2009 and ending in 2012.
It also advised for a period of simulcast during the transition period during which both analogue and digital transmission would be allowed. Digital migration in phases was to commence in July, 2012.
Acting on the recommendations the ICT ministry established a Digital Television Committee to implement them. The Committee would again include the ministry, CCK, KBC, MOA, pay TV, BSDs, set top box dealers associations, consumer groups etc.
The DTC would manage the migration process in within the time recommended and deal with challenges such as standards and availability of set top boxes and consumer awareness.
It was then that Kenya adopted the Digital Video Broadcast-Terrestrial transmission standard (DVB-T). In 2012, the country opted to upgrade to DVB-T2, which could carry more channels and issued standards for set top boxes to adhere to.
At the same time, the government through state broadcaster KBC, started a digital signal distributor, SIGNET to roll out the infrastructure. SIGNET owing to budget constraints was slow in the rollout occasioning the DTC to call for additional players to be licensed.
A subsequent round of licensing saw PANG, a Chinese group beat a consortium of media houses to win the second licence. An appeal by the media houses to the Public Procurement Tribunal was not successful.
PANG is to cede 20 per cent shareholding to locals after three years.
The original July 2012 migration date did not work as challenges such as infrastructure, public awareness and availability and affordability of decoders made it impossible. This was instead pushed to mid 2013. By then, the Consumer Federation of Kenya, a pressure group, went to court challenging the migration process on the grounds that consumers would be adversely affected as decoders were unaffordable.
With a new date set for 2013, the three media outlets, NTV, CTV and KTN joined the fray and obtained orders preventing the end of year migration until their issues were heard. It took almost a year for the case upon reaching the Supreme Court for digital migration to be given the go ahead and media owners granted their wish to receive a BSD licence.
In December 2014, the media owners went back to court seeking to delay the process as they were yet to put up their infrastructure. They also accused the existing pay TV providers GOtv and Startimes of carrying their signals illegally.
The pay TVs responded that they were merely following a 2009 law, called the “must-carry” principle mandating them to carry for free all public interest channels.
The media owners started a campaign blitz discrediting the two and cautioning viewers against buying their decoders.
An angry CAK responded by revoking the media owners’ BSD licence and repossessing the frequencies it had allocated them.
It also banned them from importing any set top boxes.
A status conference on the directives issued by the Supreme Court last year was held this week to gauge compliance by the various parties.
The matter will be heard by the Supreme Court next week.
Mbugua is a communications consultant and comments on topical issues.