The digital migration debate was one of the most contentious issues in Kenya in 2015. So tough was the matter that the three main media houses Nation Media Group, Standard Group and Royal Media Services went off air for a few weeks in protest. The three also launched a legal battle which culminated in a Supreme Court decision in support of the digital migration process. The digital migration process in Kenya was initiated in 2009, which was three years after an ITU Member States Conference signed the GE06 Regional Agreement. The agreement set a time-line within which member nations ought to have switched from analogue to digital signals.
The resistance in Kenya was mostly out of fear of the unknown and in some instances blatant misinformation by the media. For instance, some journalist took to social media stating that the digital migration process was going to lead to job losses. There were also reports in the mainstream media that the Communications Authority was responsible for the switching off which were wrong and ignominious. Finally, there were genuine fears on how majority of Kenyans were going to afford set top boxes or even make their monthly payments for pay television.
Its been one year and one month since Kenya took the bold step and mastered the shift. What has been the progress so far?
According to the Communications Authority of Kenya Q3 report on the state of ICT in Kenya (JANUARY –MARCH 2016), about 60% of the Kenyan population is covered by the digital signal. The report also states that free-to-air TV channels on the digital terrestrial platform stood at 62 while the number of pay TV service providers on the DTT platform remained 2 (GoTV and StarTimes). The Free-to-Air is a one-of purchase price and viewing attracts no extra costs. Viewers who would like to access premium content offered by DTT providers have to pay. This report gives a snapshot of the general direction in the sub-sector since the migration begun.
The matter of signal distribution was one of the most contentious in the migration debate. The first Broadcast Signal Distributor (BSD) licence was awarded to SIGNET, a subsidiary of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. The second BSD license was an open tender that was won by Pan African Network Group (PANG) with each of the two awarded at least two frequencies in every broadcast area. The three media houses, Standard Media, Nation Media and Royal Media Services formed a common front through the ADN Consortium. This was also awarded a signal distribution license with a total of 21 digital TV frequencies.
In addition to signal distribution, ADN also said there were plans to start selling digital set-top boxes. Not much has been heard of ADN with each of the players involved taking a different direction. Standard Media Group decided acquired a 50% stake in Bamba TV, which is owned by Radio Africa Group. Nation Media Group seems to have intensified its efforts towards its online and digital platform while Royal Media Services has been launching television stations which align with its vernacular radio stations possibly using the 21 digital TV frequencies. Still you can get the ADN set top boxes for Kshs. 4,400, which are distributed by Tropikal Brands Africa Limited, a company associated with former NMG CEO Linus Gitahi.
One of the highly taunted benefits of digital migration was increased variety in terms of channels which in turns means more content for subscribers. Digital signals take less bandwidth and this has allowed for the growth of more channels in Kenya. In addition, a digital signal carries much more data than an analogue signal therefore, more than one channel of television programs can be broadcast at the same time. This is known as multi-channeling. This has allowed for the cropping up of multiple channels such as Inooro TV, Aviation TV, Ebru and many others who would have found it difficult. As consumers, this has been a big boon to us, allowing us to watch diverse content. It has also given content creators a better platform to showcase their content. So many of us end users have discovered so much interesting content on these platforms, which is what digital migration was about.
Set top boxes
There has been an increase in the number of set top boxes available in the market In the quarter, CA said the number of digital Set Top Boxes purchased during the quarter stood at 34 Free-to-Air set top boxes, 202, 826 for Pay TV and 12,697 for Cable TV. As the number of set top boxes increases, the cost of the same has continued to dramatically fall and so has been the cost of monthly subscriptions. Owing to increasing competition, players such as DSTV who held a stranglehold of the market have come up with innovative products. The same has happed with other entrants such as StarTimes and AzamTV that have innovated both in terms of price and in terms of the content provided on their platforms.
Digital migration took place and presented consumers and content creators with immense opportunity that we were previously denied. It opened up the industry and continued to do at the moment, which is great. I however feel like a migration is taking place inside the wave of digital migration where we are beginning to move more towards channels of distribution. What do I mean? the internet is out to disrupt the traditional modes of content delivery including here in Kenya. This means local players are in essence competing with Netflix, Amazon on both content and price. In addition, there needs to be product innovation as far as set top boxes to make them ubiquitous, where a set top box can allow a user to cache content as well as allow them to stream content from the Internet. This is the new shift but so far so good.