Is Uganda’s Radio Landscape Ready for Digital Audio Broadcasting?

A radio presenter on air during a program

Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) on Thursday engaged broadcasters in a consultative workshop on the readiness of the radio industry as well as other stakeholders to roll out the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB).

The workshop which attracted over 50 broadcasters sought to present the findings of a 2016 UCC commissioned study which set out to assess issues of policy, drug infrastructure, page benefits and disadvantages of rollig out DAB.

Digital audio broadcasting (DAB), information pills invented in 1980 refers to audio broadcasting in which analog audio is converted into a digital signal and transmitted on an assigned channel in the AM or FM frequency range.

But this is different from internet radio which requires the use of internet for users to stream radio services.

However, it appears that there’s still work to be done if radios in Uganda are to migrate from the FM band to digital broadcasting.

Many of the participants in Thursday’s workshop argued that government needs to create awareness on the part of both the media owners and the end users to avoid mistakes. They we’re also concerned with the cost implications of this adjustment.

Since the 1990s, radio in Uganda has operated under the traditional FM spectrum and currently, there are 292 FM radios operating. Study findings indicate that the 88 to 108 Megahertz (MHz) band is occupied up to 99% leaving no space for more frequency for new radios.

It is for this reason that UCC believes that adopting Digital Audio Broadcasting will create more band space since the digital transmission offers more radio programmes over a specific spectrum than analogue FM radio.

In addition, the regulator says DAB will rid radio broadcasting of interference, poor quality signal reception and difficulty in innovations. World over, only 35 countries currently have DAB services on air and only 405,000,000 people are able to receive the 1,966 DAB services that are on air.

Uganda is looking to join only two other African countries (South Africa and Tunisia) which have carried out trials but are yet to roll out the module.

Godfrey Mutabazi, the UCC Executive Director said technology has evolved and so has audio broadcasting. In his view, DAB is the best way Uganda can widen its radio spectrum.

“There are frequencies that used to be open to be occupied by VHF analog but have been opened up for digital audio broadcasting by International Telecommunications Union. So this is the direction we are taking,” Mutabazi said.

Of the 51 radio stations that participated in the research, 49% wanted DAB rolled out whereas 36% agreed but with reservations. The 36% were concerned with issues to do with; adequate planning on the part of government, ensuring that monthly fees are affordable and preferred that digital broadcasting coexists along with FM.

“Once DAB has been rolled out, radios will not require transmitters and will also save operational and capital costs since transmission will be done by signal distributors,” Nelson Taremwa a researcher who was part of the team that conducted the study said.

However, adjusting to Digital Audio Broadcasting requires a supporting policy framework to be in place to guide the implementation, licensing, minimum standards and user protection among others. The research however reveals that Uganda has no such policy so far.

Users will also have to get rid of their traditional FM radio sets and instead procure DAB radio receivers which will enable them to listen in to a variety of radio stations across Uganda.

But according to figures provided by researchers, one DAB radio set costs about USD 25 (equivalent to Ush 87,500) which is eight times the average cost of an ordinary FM radio set.

To the ordinary user, it will be difficult to opt for these expensive receivers as long as the FM radio alternative still exists. UCC however says DAB is not meant to replace FM but rather to coexist at least in the short and medium term.

It is no wonder that the majority (35%) of the end users whose views were captured in the research questioned the affordability of the DAB radio sets.

Others (30%) suggested that the service be provided with no monthly subscription while 20% said intensive sensitization must be carried out.

Deo Kimbo a broadcasting engineer with Mega FM in Gulu told ChimpReports that both the final consumer and the broadcaster “will pay highly” if the DAB model is adopted.

“These audio signals will be compressed and distorted. The user must have some software in their device which converts these distorted sounds into quality sound,” Kimbo said.

“It’s like a phone. When you have too many Apps open at the same time, it will consume a lot of battery and data. Similarly DAB radios will consume a lot of battery in a short time,” he added.

He believes that UCC can still manage to expand the FM spectrum as is the case in the USA where up to 30,000 FM radios are being accommodated.

“Sweden and USA tried to switch to DAB but they couldn’t manage. They instead resorted to the Digital Radio Mondale which is a simpler format and still incorporates FM and digital”.

Regarding infrastructure which is another major component of the DAB architecture, study findings indicated that Uganda could leverage on the existing IP based national backbone fibre and the digital television network (SIGNET) to relay radio signals across the country.

But even then, broadcasters would require additional infrastructure like head ends transmitters, feeder cables, band pass filters, power dividers and antenna systems.

Steven Biraahwa Mukitale, the Buliisa MP and member of the Economy & Infrastructure Committee in Parliament proposed reviews in the tax policy if Uganda is to cope with the expensive DAB technology.

He warned that some hardware manufacturing countries may want to dump the old analogue radio sets as a way of disposing them.

“We can have a tax waivers or cuts on DAB radio sets and increase the taxes on imported the old archaic sets as a way of reducing them. This way UCC will safeguard the consumer and keep the broadcasters relevant,” Hon. Mulitale told ChimpReports.

The UCC commissioned research recommends among others; a national policy and strategy to implement DAB and awareness creation within the public regarding DAB.

It also proposed adoption of DAB+ which is more compatible, innovative procurement and distribution of DAB receivers as well as capacity building.


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