PRESIDENT Mwai Kibaki has launched Kenyans into the era of digital broadcasting, a milestone he pledges the country will achieve before he leaves office in 2012, three years ahead of the global deadline, writes Dennis Itumbi for

The President assured television viewers keen to migrate to the new and clearer transmission platform that the government would consider tax breaks and other incentives to avert fears among the citizenry that the pricing would be high.

Information Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo is even more ambitious, revealing that the government was considering setting up local assembly plants for the set-top conversion boxes, that will allow old television sets to receive the new digital signal, so as to increase the uptake and reduce the prices.

Kenya Digital Committee, the team that is overseeing the migration to digital broadcasting, says the government should also allow the state broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation to import the gadgets through its subsidiary Signet for faster uptake.

Signet has already shipped in some boxes for the trials.

The CCK is expected to switch off all broadcasters who have not migrated to the digital platform by the deadline.

The government has formed Signet as a KBC subsidiary to transmit the digital signals for all broadcasters until 2012 to reduce the cost of migration.

But the move is also seen as an attempt to level the playing field by removing the high cost of equipment that has acted as an entry barrier to potential investors. Broadcasters will be required to sign transmission contracts with Signet upon licensing by the CCK.

Establishment of a single signal distributor leaves broadcasters with the task of generating content, opening a new competition front.

All broadcasters are also expected to apply for new licences in January to meet the requirements of the Kenya Communication Amendment Act 2009.

CCK director general Charles Njoroge says the rollout will free a number of frequencies and make it possible to immediately license more than 100 new broadcasters who have been on its waiting list.

Migration to digital broadcasting is expected to unlock the frequencies logjam and break the long queue for licenses by those seeking to invest in Kenyas vibrant broadcasting sector.

Telecoms engineers say a single analogue frequency could carry as many as eight channels on the digital platform, offering the Communications Commission of Kenya the opportunity to end the long queue of an estimated 130 investors who have been waiting to enter the broadcasting market.

An increase in the number of broadcasters is in turn expected to spur growth down the chain, especially in the content generation market to keep the stations running.

All broadcasters are from next year expected to air at least 40 per cent local content, a regulation that opens up a huge business potential for homegrown production houses.

Kenya has 110 television channels and 264 FM frequencies assigned to 23 television companies and 62 FM broadcasters.  Under the new transmission model, broadcasters will have uniform signal coverage removing reach and clarity as an item of competition in the market.

The challenge is for the broadcasters to generate local content that will enable them to run the stations 24 hours without breaching the regulations, Njoroge said citing the new rule requiring them to have at least 40 per cent local content.

David Waweru, the KBC managing director, said the industry should now concentrate on content development as opposed to incurring costs on none core business issues such as building and maintaining infrastructure.
With analogue broadcasting it required a broadcaster to put up between 25 to 30 transmitters worth not less than Sh1 million($13,340) each, said Waweru.

However, TV owners say the cost of the boxes the equipment that enables analogue TV sets to receive digital signals has risen by large margins since the government issued specifications for the recommended brands, throwing the gadgets beyond the reach of many homes.

But dealers reckoned that the low uptake of the boxes has made it difficult to cut prices without hurting their margins.  It may take a national rollout to get the right sales volumes that will enable us to cut prices, said Jayesh Patel, an electronics dealer in Nairobis Westlands.

The switch from analogue to digital broadcasting requires both broadcasters and consumers to buy new equipment that converts analogue signals to digital.

The government two months ago announced that only digital set top boxes that are Digital Video Broadcasting Terrestrial (DVBT) and MPEG4-enabled will be sold in Kenya.  These are higher versions of the signal conversion equipment with the ability to pick up signals from the KBC portal.

The government says the set top boxes should be priced at between Sh3, 000 ($40) and Sh5, 000 ($67) but consumers say they are currently priced at Sh10, 000 ($133).

Digital TV sets that don't require the set top boxes are priced at between Sh30, 000 ($400) and Sh500, 000 ($ 6,700) for high definition versions.

The President led rollout of digital broadcasting is the culmination of a three-year process that began in October 2006.

Migration to digital TV is a global project that began at the 2006 telecommunications conference in Geneva that set June 2015 as the deadline by which all broadcasters are expected to have migrated to the digital platform.

Local assemblers and software developers are also expected to benefit from installation business and development of software that will help record programmes for later viewing.

Call centres will also benefit as more pay-TV operators get room to enter the market and will be looking for customer care services.

A number of countries have started migrating despite numerous challenges, US is among them but they had to push their deadline ahead so as to come up with the incentives for both end users and broadcasters to ensure smooth migration. South Africa is among the countries that has embarked on the migration from analogue to digital.