Tuesday January 21 2014

Jitters over Pay TV content as digital switch looms

A viewer switches channels on pay TV. Digital migration

A viewer switches channels on pay TV. File photo 


On 31 December this year, Ugandans, will be marking an end to the era of analogue technology, according to government.
Thereafter, people living around the neighbouring districts—within a radius that is yet to be established, will not have access to television channels without the aid of a recommended set top box.

Yet a considerable number of Ugandans have embraced the digital migration message and subscribe to the few licensed pay television providers, notably, MultiChoice, StarTimes, Zuku, among others.

However, the concerns raised cast a shadow of doubt on the entire process.
Concerns raised by consumer protection agencies stem from the quality of content provided yet they are supposed to meet monthly subscription charges to continue watching TV. Another sticking point is the failure to provide free to air channels, notably the local channels.

The Uganda Consumers Protection Association, in a petition to the regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and Ministries of ICT and Trade, observed that it is greatly disturbing.

“Some of these companies are taking advantage of the consumers lack of knowledge on the products to actively promote and dump what appears to be cheap products/services onto the market.”

In Kenya, the same issues were raised leading to legal battles between media owners and government over switching off on December 31 2013, without addressing several concerns.

UCC’s head of communications Fred Otunnu, however told Prosper, the concerns raised by consumers are under consideration and will not affect the switch-off.
“We gave TV providers a directive to provide free-to-air channels to consumers, although I am aware it has fully come into effect, he said, adding, “Free to air programming for those who cannot afford subscription will be effected when we enter the digital era.”

Aim of digital migration
Ideally, digital migration is intended to give television consumers more content, choice and better service quality, but instead has increased complaints to the regulator to take necessary action against providers who do not meet standards.

But Mr Otunnu, instead cautioned consumers to stop going for cheaper alternatives. “While we are taking care of the complaints, they should subscribe to platforms which give them value for their money since we have a few options available.”

The Chinese’ owned StarTimes which claims more than 130,000 subscribers holds the highest number complaints, according to officials in UCC’s consumer welfare department.

The company was recently sued for distributing outdated DVB-T decoders against the required DVB-T2, but is also yet to improve on the quality and nature of content.

Asked why they opted for StarTimes, a few subscribers Prosper talked to said, “It was cheap when it launched but is now feeding us on majorly Chinese content.”

The company’s publicist Christine Nagujja, in an email response on content value, deflected the consumers’ protests, saying, “As a DTT service provider they have the most number of channels in terms of content and at the cheapest price.”

“We in Uganda do not have a problem of content,” she maintained.
On free-to-air channels, she argued: “We offer our customers free to air channels if they buy the decoder at the market price of Shs180,000 without any subsidiaries from us.”

Free-to air channels
UCC officials maintained that, pay TV providers have agreed to allow consumers access free-to-air channels, but each provider will have to choose their numbers during the digital era.

Similarly, MultiChoice-Africa Limited, which houses DStv and GOtv, which commands more than 100,000 customers, said they have a commercial arrangement with local channels-namely Bukedde, NTV, UBC and WBS.

“Through the arrangement, fully paid up subscribers are able to access these channels on both the DStv and GOtv service but subscribers who don’t renew their subscription service would then only receive UBC, the public broadcaster until they renew their subscription,” said MultiChoice publicist Tina Wamala.

She, however, said the company via GOtv introduced GOtv open, a bouquet which offers subscribers the added benefit of enjoying free-to air channels with no additional subscription as long as they pay off the initial subscription and decoder.

Available data from UCC indicates there are about 300,000 pay TV subscribers shared among the five pay TV service providers.

While consumers are still jittery about the quality of content, other issues like the high price of set top boxes, lack of awareness about digital migration and debate whether the public broadcaster, UBC, should spearhead the process remain unaddressed.