Why Uganda’s Digital Migration strategy is injurious to public interest and the lessons we can learn from other Countries.

By Silver Kayondo

17th June , 2015 marked the deadline day when all countries in ITU Region 1 (Europe, Africa, Middle East and the Islamic Republic of Iran) ought to have migrated from analogue to digital broadcasting as per the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Agreement, 2006. This process is policy driven. However, Uganda faces some peculiar challenges which are detrimental to public interest considerations that should be espoused by all key players in the process.

According to the Uganda Digital Migration Policy, one of the key objectives of digital migration is to gain spectrum efficiency, which will bring consumer benefits, that is, more choices in television channels and services, industry benefits such as new revenue streams and business models, and freeing of some spectrum by digital technology for new broadcasting services and other applications such as wireless and mobile television. However, this policy is deeply flawed as it is presents some enforcement challenges for the sector regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).

Firstly, there has not been enough digital sensitization of the Policy and the necessity to shift from analogue to digital transmission. This weakness has been exploited by the private sector players for their advertising, commercial and marketing strategies. This increases costs and threatens public interest concerns of affordability of Set-Top Boxes (STBs) and access to information.

Secondly, having made the decision to proceed with digital migration, government moved to the stage of policyformulation. However, the current focus on the Digital Migration campaign confines itself only to broadcasting, and thereby misses potential digital interfaces with the internet and other mediums of technological innovation and invention that may arise in future. This silo approach is short-term oriented and yet the Digital world is very ubiquitous and constantly evolving. More public resources will be expended in the future to upgrade this system and yet through foresight and early planning, we can avoid this wastage and inconvenience.

Furthermore, this project was embarked on without any guiding law or regulations. This is problematic because much as we rely on international best practices and sector standards, there has not been proper conceptualization and contextualization of these benchmark standards to suit Uganda’s needs. Uganda is a diversified and dynamic society with often competing and overlapping political, social, cultural and economic interests. It is events arising out of this diversity that form local content. Aspects like traditional knowledge content and the intellectual property rights issues arising therefrom have not been addressed. This has ramifications on communally owned property and public expectations.

In aggregating all these stakeholder interests overall, the rationale and consequent outcome is supposed to be “public interest” – the general interest of all is supposed to be the guiding principle of what policy finally gets decided. One such consideration in this is the notion of “universal access” – meaning that benefits of policy should be available to every person living in a society, even in the most rural districts. The notion here, when applied to digital migration, is one of rights and benefits – of all citizens enjoying equal rights, and the entire society benefiting because no one is left behind or on the sidelines in terms of access to digital broadcast signals. A related consideration is “universal service”, and this refers to which actual broadcast services are delivered to everybody – something that is particularly seen as the duty of a state-owned broadcaster as part of its “public service” mandate.

The above process calls for more consultation and dialogue between the broadcasters, the regulator, civil society groups, academia, traditional and cultural institutions, et cetera. However, in Uganda, there has been very little public involvement and consultation. All the key players in society ought to have had an input in policy formulation and implementation. It is this policy which is supposed to actualize Government plans like e-Governance, e-democracy and e-Democracy. The lack of collective ownership of the process in form of consultation, public-private partnership and consensus building negatives these initiatives and deepens governance deficits.

The substance of government policy is critical to the shape and roll-out of digital migration. This is what decides if this costly process will be subsidized by the state or not, and whether such support will be at the stage of production, transmission or reception, or combination thereof. Uganda has not captured these key highlights, which impinge on issues like affordability, cost and reliability of the digital services provided. This in turn impacts human rights like access to education material, entertainment, enjoyment of culture, religious beliefs and general access to information. This is a major policy gap and the resource allocation in the 2015/16 budget should address this loophole. For example, South Africa’s government specified that the set-top boxes would be subsidized for the poorest sector of society. In addition, South African policy was also set to require local manufacture of set-top boxes, rather than import. Such trade-off in favor of local industry was a deliberate policy decisions and a way of incentivizing local investment in this critical sector of society.

However, not all hope is lost. There is still some time to redress some of the wrongs. To ensure affordability, UCC can consider incorporating into licensing conditions the requirement on the part of signal distribution licensees to subsidize the cost of STBs. An incentive structure should be put in place to encourage good corporate social responsibility by the private players. Public-Private partnership is a right step in the right direction towards cost-sharing, public sensitization and awareness promotion programs and balancing of the competing Government, regulator, investor and public interests.  This is one way Kenya is attempting to redress the wrongs that led to a media blackout and protracted court battles.

Lastly, there is need for Parliament or UCC to consider an appropriate course of legislation or regulation to govern the disposal of waste material resulting from the transition from analogue to digital transition. A proper E-Waste management and disposal plan is very fundamental in mitigating harm to the environment, thereby safeguarding the citizens’ right to a healthy and clean environment guaranteed under Article 39 of the Constitution.

Silver Kayondo is a lawyer with interest in technology, new media, development, governance and human rights. He is also a contributor on public policy, legislative and regulatory framework formulation and analysis.

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