Is Kenya's digital migration really about viewers?

Kenya: Yesterday, after one of my articles on digital migration was published, I received two very angry emails. One was a general complaint about why the three media houses that own KTN, Citizen and NTV were not ready for digital migration, and that they were caught napping. The article ended with a few unkind words.

The other went further to ask why smaller channels that no one knew about before February 14, had managed to migrate without a hitch while the three media houses pleaded for more time.

These are all not strictly journalistic questions, and I would normally be reluctant to engage in them. But, because they are founded on inaccurate or perhaps just inadequate information, I will endeavour to explain. After all, the two angry emails ignored the issues I raised about media freedom and chose to focus on these particular questions.

In my view these readers' questions, and presumably a lot of the people who have written blogs and tweeted about the current impasse, are just two. One is: What exactly are the three media houses not ready for? In other words, why are the lesser-known channels ready, while the four household names in broadcasting are not? Secondly, why did it take the three companies this long to "realise" they were not ready?

The first question presupposes the three media houses want to do the exact same thing the channels that have migrated are doing – to simply generate a digital signal and make it available to a signal distributor. That is the first point of confusion that must be clarified.

In the early days of the digital migration process, there were two issues these older media companies wanted addressed. One was to ensure the huge investments they had made in developing a countrywide broadcast infrastructure since the 90s did not go to waste.

This infrastructure includes transmitters, land, buildings among others. As such, the consideration was to give them a signal distribution licence that would enable them to simply upgrade what they had in place and be ready to continue carrying their signals in addition to carrying others' content as well, under agreed terms. This was reflected in Government policy at the time and the report of a task force that made recommendations on how to do a successful digital migration.

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The second issue was to ensure the content generated by these private media houses would continue to be independent. That is, there would be no fear of anyone interfering with material deemed as unpalatable by the Government or any other entity.

The first concern was the subject of a long litigation after the media consortium lost their bid to the wholly-Chinese company, Pan African Network Group (PANG) under controversial circumstances. But in brief, that court challenge only concluded on February 13 this year.

The second issue, too, was in court and ended up with the three media houses being given what is known in technical jargon as a self-provisioning licence. This simply means a licence that allows an operator to carry its own signal.

So, what then are the three companies seeking to do that is so different from the plan of the other  over 40 channels? First, because they have been given a licence to distribute their own signal the three need transmitters as well as set-top boxes to make this happen. This is one of the ways of ensuring their content reaches a majority of Kenyans without interference.

Why then didn't they buy these in 2011 or even 2013? Well, these are expensive pieces of equipment that can only be bought when you know that you actually have a licence to use them. What would have happened if they bought all these, some of it using shareholder money and then the Government ended up refusing to issue a licence?

But anyway, after a four-year court battle, that licence was eventually granted by the Communications Authority of Kenya on November 25, last year, but was cancelled a month later and only got restored by the Supreme Court on February 13.That same night all analogue broadcasting was switched off! Where then is this "all the time"-the media houses supposedly had-to buy the equipment needed for the switchover?

Unlike the other channels currently on the digital platform, which can only generate and make available their signals for distribution by third parties, the three media houses were granted a licence to distribute their own digital signals as well. And this is what they need time to be ready for – time which still falls well within the June deadline.

The result then of what happened on the February 14 is that the three companies suddenly found themselves with a licence, frequencies and a digital signal but no platform on which to broadcast.

Many have challenged this position by insisting the broadcasters simply need to give their signal to PANG and SIGNET for distribution and forget about their own infrastructure and signal distribution licence. This sound likes a pragmatic proposition, until you look closely at the implication.

One of the less talked about problems in this confusion is the fact that these two signal distributors are also cousins of two Pay television networks, GoTV and StarTimes. That means that any time PANG and SIGNET receive a signal, it automatically goes to both of these two pay platforms.

If the story ended there, then perhaps it would be a good thing. But it doesn't. The moment the signal gets to the Pay TV platforms, it becomes their asset and any time a subscriber does not pay, they get switched off.

Why then should the broadcasters be forced to make available their content for free, to companies that will not give it to viewers for free? Why should KTN, for instance, be switched off on StarTimes simply because a viewer has not paid their monthly fees? Isn't that viewer essentially being coerced into paying for a channel that ought to be watched for free?

Further, StarTimes, for instance, routinely overlays it own advertising messages on content it gets for free from media houses and by extension independent content producers. How can this be acceptable?

In my view therefore, the debate before the country is really whether television in Kenya will continue to be free for a majority and whether or not there is need to protect television content that takes millions of shillings to generate.

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