Mwathane Why doesn’t the State absorb the cost of digital migration? Kenyans are poor


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Why doesn’t the State absorb the cost of digital migration? Kenyans are poor

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Listening to the escalating debate on the migration to digital television, one gets a feeling that our policymakers are yet to appreciate the realities of our country.

Kenya is a poor country with a per capita income of approximately $600 as per 2012 reports. This is low and about five per cent of the world average. We’ve to work harder to turn this around.

No wonder that just over a million of us, less than three per cent of our population, own television sets. But in the rural interior, many TV sets are donations to parents from their working children, otherwise they are found in institutions such as schools or pubs. Beyond Isiolo, Garissa or Kitale, television becomes hard to find. A set remains unaffordable to most Kenyans.

It is against this context that the discourse on digital migration is going on. The digital migration requires that those privileged to own TV sets in Kenya purchase digital set top boxes (STBs), which cost an average of Sh5,000 to continue watching television once the analogue signal is switched off.

While one can buy a TV set with integrated digital tuners, the associated cost is beyond the reach of most. Most of us, therefore, need STBs.
And we must remember that if it weren’t for the ensuing court cases, the current analogue signal would have been long switched off for Nairobi and its environs, shutting out all viewers without the set top boxes. (WALUBENGO: Here’s the real issue behind Kenya’s digital TV migration war)

A phased programme will subsequently see the rest of the country progressively switched off, June being the absolute deadline.

While the price of Sh5,000 required per box may be just the price of lunch or a round of drinks for the affluent, it is unaffordable to most Kenyans whose priority needs remain food, shelter and clothing.


Let’s all appreciate that television is about information sharing and we all need it. It has perfected the art of using images to disseminate critical information. A well-done TV image is powerful and compelling.

In this country, it’s been used to send out critical national messages on security, health and voter education. It has mobilised Kenyans to help victims of floods, famine or terror attacks. (READ: Relief as judges switch on TVs)

The best commercial adverts have been achieved through television. Think about images of healthy foods, crops and children meant to promote healthy eating, farming and vaccination. The images linger for years. Newspaper and radio can never quite achieve similar results.

Any policy decisions must therefore safeguard, not diminish, Kenya’s recent gains in television viewing countrywide. Like roads, railways and airports, television broadcasts must be categorised as a national good. This then helps us to make competent policy and pricing decisions.

We must also appreciate that Kenya’s television broadcasts, like elsewhere in the world, must migrate to a digital platform by June 2015 as agreed internationally. Non-compliant countries will, after this date, risk having their analogue signals interfered with, a risk Kenya cannot take.

But in a poor country like ours where the majority struggle to buy a television set, is it judicious to ask them to purchase the required Sh5,000 conversion boxes as well?

One must thank the government for zero-rating the import duty on set top boxes in the June 2012 budget. But one could argue that the government, in tandem with treating information dissemination and sharing as a compelling national good, could do more. It could meet the migration costs for existing TV sets and absorb the associated costs of the same in future purchases.

For the existing one million TVs, this would cost about Sh5 billion. The cost of Thika Superhighway was in excess of Sh30 billion, the Greenspan project to expand Jomo Kenyatta Airport is projected to cost more than Sh60 billion, while the construction of the new standard gauge railway is projected to cost about Sh1.2 trillion.

A look at the comparative costs of social-economic empowerment projects in health and education may indicate that ensuring Kenyans continue to receive free access to digital television signals through State facilitation is a lot cheaper, yet with a tremendous national dividend. State bureaucrats need to rethink this matter.

Mr Mwathane is a licensed surveyor ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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