broadcasting studio XXX.  Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

WHILE South African broadcasters continue to haggle over the move to digital terrestrial television, the Kenyan government is ready to switch off analogue television broadcasting signals from December.

Both free-to-air and pay television options will be available to residents.

Speaking at a MultiChoice Africa information briefing in Nairobi last month, policy expert Daniel Obam said analogue signals would be switched off in the city on December 13. Other parts of the country would follow in phases from next year.

The International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency responsible for information and telecommunications technology, has set a June 2015 deadline for member states -including South Africa -to switch from analogue to digital.

Failure to do so would put countries at risk of interference from neighbouring nations as the agency would no longer protect analogue signals.

Telecoms operators -competing for increasingly rare spectrum as network traffic grows -are also sniffing around the frequencies that would be freed up by the switch, something that has been dubbed the “digital dividend”.

South Africa has indicated it would miss the union’s deadline, as it has been mired in court challenges from broadcasters seeking an access control system in the set-top boxes needed to feed digital signals into analogue television sets.

Vasili Vass, group head of corporate affairs at e.tv, one of the broadcasters keen on the control system, said: “If digital specifications and the conditional access system are not outlined and controlled carefully, users will not have a cohesive experience across different set-top boxes, and this could negatively impact their view of free-to-air broadcasters and their offerings.

“Encryption will ensure that boxes that don’t meet the specifications won’t work. Conditional access is essential so that stolen boxes cannot be used outside of South Africa and grey imports will not be able to pick up a signal.”

But pay-television provider MultiChoice, a subsidiary of listed media giant Naspers, is against the access control system and wants a more basic box.

The provider has argued the control system would be bad for consumers because it locks them into a device which will be obsolete in a few years when all television sets are digital.

This system has not been implemented anywhere else in the world and would effectively amount to government and taxpayers funding e.tv’s pay-television ambitions, MultiChoice pointed out.

“Hundreds of countries around the world have successfully migrated to digital terrestrial television without any set-top box control,” said a spokesman.

Communications Minister Yunus Carrim was getting impatient with the delays.

“We are significantly behind schedule. Now we want to get going,” he told delegates at a Google event on the digital economy in Johannesburg last week.

“A major stumbling block is the impasse among the broadcasters and other private sector stakeholders on whether the set-top boxes should have a control system or not.”

Mr Carrim said there would be a meeting between the broadcasters later this month, where all points of view would be considered to see if an agreement could be reached. Digital terrestrial television would be launched in a few months if all went well, he said.

But in Kenya, basic boxes appear to have created challenges for the government.

“[There is a] proliferation of set-top boxes and unauthorised importation of set top-boxes to skim early adopters, ” said Mr Obam.

Also presenting headaches for the government was the massive amount of content needed for the number of channels capable of being transmitted through the new technology.

These can transmit up to 22 digital channels in one analogue channel.

It is not possible to fill airtime with reruns of old international programmes -a strategy favoured by the South African Broadcasting Corporation -as the country has legislation requiring 40% of airtime to be dedicated to local content.

Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has voiced plans to raise this number to 60% in a bid to create more jobs in the creative sector.

MultiChoice Africa has stepped into the breach with a $10m (R99.7m at Friday rates) investment in a studio complex at Jamhuri Park, Nairobi.

The complex, which it bought in 2011, already hosts the SuperSport studios, where sports programming and analysis is shot in the dominant language, Swahili. It also hosts Kona, a big-budget telenovela on the pan-African Africa Magic Entertainment (AME) channel.

M-Net head of communications Lani Lombard said: “As a company, M-Net has invested in building studios for the creation of new, proudly East African stories.”

Four more telenovelas are set to be produced at the studios for AME, but Ms Lombard did not reveal details.

“We have also been involved in intensive training in the region with several workshops for producers, directors, script writers and other production crew,” she said.

Maake was a guest of MultiChoice in Nairobi. She also owns shares in MultiChoice.

• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times