Monday, 16 February 2015

Digital Migration in Uganda: A consumer's experience

Digital Television Coverage
As of February 2015 only areas within a 65km radius of Central Kampala are covered by the digital signal.

However, by the end of the year the digital footprint is supposed to have increased to cover more parts of the country.

The Uganda Communications Commission has set June 15th as the date on which the switchover from analogue to digital will begin. It remains to be seen whether the country will be ready for this switchover by that time.

In the meantime, for those that are in the coverage zone the digital signal is up and running and quite clear.

For those seeking to make the switch to free-to-air digital television there are 2 important pieces of equipment necessary; a TV set and a set top box (also know as a converter). Also, depending on where you are, an external antenna might be necessary. 

The TV set 
Some people might be under the impression that to watch digital television one needs an ultra modern fancy High definition TV set.
This is simply not true.

Just about any TV set will do just fine if you want to watch digital TV all one has to do is hook it up to a set-top box that will convert the digital signal to an analogue one that all current TVs “understand”.

There are what are known as Integrated Digital TVs which come with the inbuilt ability to pick digital signals without any additional hardware. However, these TV sets are rare in Uganda and they are pretty costly at the moment.

It is also worth noting that not every flat screen High Definition TV you see is digital.
I personally use a 15 year old JVC TV and it works just fine.

The main thing you have to be careful about is that the TV set you have has a way to connect with the set top box you have purchased or are intending to purchase. This is most likely to be by RCA Connectors, which for some reason are commonly called banana pins. Some others may use RF connectors and newer TV sets will also probably have a HDMI connection.

The Set-Top Box 
There are different kinds of Set top boxes out there.

The kind most people are used to are those sold by GoTV and StarTimes, which come pre-programmed to scan specific frequencies and pick specific channels that are encrypted and one has to pay a subscription to watch these channels.

Such set-top boxes will not pick the free-to-air channels, unless those channels are included specifically in the paid bouquets available.

Free to air set-top boxes 
However, this is not the kind of set-top box I will be discussing. I will be talking only about free-to-air set top boxes. As the name suggests, these boxes will pick any free unencrypted channels that are out there just like your regular TV would.

While these free to air set top boxes also come in many forms, anybody buying one for use in Uganda has to keep in mind one very important thing, which is that the set top box ought to be DVB-T2 compatible.

I will not get deep into the technical issues here except to say that there are different standards for Digital Terrestrial Television in the world, the most common being DVB-T and DVB-T2. DVB-T2 is the more modern of the two and it is the standard that Uganda adopted.

Also, depending on what your needs are and how much you are willing to spend the DVB-T2 compatible set top boxes also come with some differences. For example, some have slots for smartcards others don’t. Some are HD ready and some are not.

However, all those are extras that may not be immediately important, because as of now the PayTV companies will not sell you a smartcard without you purchasing their set-top box. Also, to the best of my knowledge there are no High Definition channels broadcasting on the digital platform at the moment.

As the technology progresses and high definition broadcasting becomes more common it might be a good idea to “future proof” yourself and buy the most advanced set-top box out there so you don’t have to upgrade in a few years.

I personally use a Chinese made set top box I bought from a company called Widestar in Kampala at a cost of 150,000 shillings. It has a smartcard slot should I ever feel the need to pay for subscription. Its is HD compatible and it has USB port to which I can connect a hard drive that I can use as a PVR to record programmes or from which I can view digital media files in a variety of formats.

There are some cheaper models going for around 70,000 shillings that have no card slot and have no High definition capability.

Earlier I had mentioned that some people might need external antennae and others might not. The reason for this is that the set top boxes come with their own antennae and if you are in an area where the signal is strong then you will not need an outdoor or external antenna.

However most people are probably going to need external antennae especially as the digital signal is till very much in the test phases and also because the digital signal is slightly weaker than the analogue one most people are used to.

At this point some might be wondering, “What channels do I get after I have set everything up?”
Most, if not all, set top boxes come with an auto-search function which will allow you to pick any channels that are freely available in your neighbourhood-which means pretty much every channel you have been watching free to air with your analogue TV.

However if for some reason your set-top box cannot do an auto-scan then you will have to manually scan specific frequencies in order to get the channels on those frequencies.

In my trials I found that most of the common Free to air channels are on the 474MHz (474000 Khz) frequency. With a few others on the 594Mhz (59400 Khz) frequency. By these I mean channels like NTV, Bukedde, NBS and so forth.

There are a few new channels out their and some that are testing their signals. I hope that there will be more stations.

Channels Available on digital
 (February 2015)
UBC, NTV, WBS, Star TV, Record TV, Urban TV, Bukedde 1, Top TV, LTV, Miracle TV (Channel 44), Al-Jazeera, BBC, CCTV, CITIZEN, EA TV, Capital TV, ITV..
The following are testing their signal, HTV, ABS TV, Delta TV, RTV, Magic One, plus 2 others I cannot quite figure out.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Dominic Ongwen appears before the International Criminal Court

On January 26 2015 Dominic Ongwen made a pre-trial appearance at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

Ongwen was one of the commanders of the murderous Lord's Resistance Army that terrorized people in Uganda for 20 years.

Ongwen surrendered to Seleka rebels in Central African Republic in January 2015. He was later handed over to US special forces who subsequently handed him over to the International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Court had issued an international arrest warrant for Dominic Ongwen, along with four other commanders of  the Lord's Resistance Army.

The ICC has set 24th August as the commencement date for Ongwen's trial.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A Day at the Uganda Museum

The Uganda Museum is the oldest Museum in the East African Community having been established in 1908 by the British Protectorate government as a repository of some ethnographic materials.

The museum has been in its current location on Kitante Hill in Kampala since 1954.

The Museum has a few artifacts of historic importance displayed in different galleries like ethnographic gallery, natural history gallery, traditional music gallery, science and industry gallery and the early history gallery.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Tranquil empty streets in Kampala. A sight so rare

Parts of Kampala can look like a ghost town over the festive season. These pictures were taken on Christmas day and streets that are ordinarily full of traffic were almost completely empty. 

I kind of liked the feel in a way. Almost wished the city was that quiet all the time.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Kampala Night Lights

Took the Canon EOS 600D out on the town one Saturday night to see if I could shot night video with only the surrounding lights for illumination.

I now know its quite possible and with a few tweaks in the settings and focus I can probably get something less grainy  and sharper- learning curve just got less steep.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Scenes from a banana market in Mbarara

As the title suggests, this is a short video of scenes from a banana (matooke) market just outside Mbarara town shot in January 2014.

The bananas are brought from the surrounding villages and loaded onto the waiting trucks to be transported to Kampala.

Mbarara district is one of Uganda's leading producers of bananas, which are a staple food for most people in Central, Western and Southern Uganda.

Monday, 19 August 2013

UCC steps up

After blogging about the inadequacy of the Uganda Communication Commission's sensitisation programme for the ongoing migration from analogue to digital television I was pleasantly surprised when when I opened the New Vision today and found a glossy pull-out on FAQs relating to digital migration in Uganda.

Ugandan Digital Migration FAQ from the UCC
There is now also a fairly more extensive FAQ page on the UCC website which addresses the issues I raised and many more

I would like to think that my article in the Daily Monitor had something to do with these developments. I hope that now they can do the same in the electronic media and in local languages

Friday, 16 August 2013

Uganda Commmunications Commission not doing enough to sensitize on Digital Migration

Kampalans lining up to buy GOTV decoders. What most don't know is that
digital migration is not the same as subscribing to a digital PayTV provide
r (photo courtesy of Daily Monitor)
The confusion surrounding the recent switch-off of some TV stations in and around Kampala, as equipment to enable migration to digital television was being installed on the Kololo TV mast, exposed just how little sensitization has been done to prepare the public for digital migration. 

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has done a poor job sensitizing Ugandans on the digital migration to the extent that even the few who  have an idea of what digital migration is about associate the move to digital with subscription services like StarTimes and GoTV.

UCC has not done enough to sensitize the public on the purchase of free-to-air decoders (for which no subscription is required) and how these will work. It has instead kept quiet while the PayTV stations are raking in millions from people who are under the impression that without a subscription from a pay TV provider like GOTV they will not be able to watch any TV when the switch to full digital is complete.
The UCC should be clearly telling people that they are now only testing the digital signal and hence people will still be able to watch their analogue channels for a while until the full switchover is done. They should then further explain how the migration will work and how the people will be able to get their favourite channels for free as they have been doing before migration.

The UCC should also take steps to either import subsidized free-to-air set-top boxes or at least prepare, and publicize widely, a list of trusted distributors from where people can go to buy set-top boxes that fit their price range. A clear distinction should also be made between free-to-air set-top boxes and those for which a regular subscription will be required.

As of now the UCC is silent on all these issues, which fuels suspicion that they might be in cahoots with the Pay TV companies, helping them reap big profits while the population is still ignorant. 

All this comes on the heels of confusion over which standard for terrestrial digital television Uganda would adopt. First UCC said it would be DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcasting — Terrestrial) then it later changed its mind and decided on the more advanced DVB-T2 yet many consumers had already purchased DVB-T decoders mostly from StarTimes, which, on top of not offering them free-to-air channels, will soon be rendered obsolete. This was on top of UCC misleading people in the early days that those with digital satellite receivers/decoders from companies like DSTV would not have anything to worry about from the switch from analogue to digital because these decoders were already digital. What they failed to mention was that DSTV decoders (and those of other satellite TV services like ZUKU) decode DVB-S/DVB-S2 (Digital Video Broadcasting — Satellite), which though related in some ways is not the same as DVB-T/DVB-T2

The UCC website is also woefully lacking in any useful information on digital migration. The site only has a press release on the just concluded switch-off of TV channels on the UBC mast and a page on “Minimum specifications for DVB-T2 digital set-top boxes for the Ugandan market”, which even for somebody like me with some knowledge on digital television is too technical. 

UCC should at the very least have a FAQ page that answers most of the questions consumers are likely to have and also allay some fears based on conflicting information. There should be a simplified explanation of the set-top box specifications that does not only make sense to a technical person. There should be a well laid out time-frame over which the migration is going to take place in different parts of Uganda.

The website is just one channel through which information can be relayed but unfortunately it can only be accessed by only few people. Therefore a lot more sensitization has to be done especially on the local radio and TV stations over coming months so that by the time the global switch to digital is complete a lot more people are aware of what is going on. 

A billboard here and there in combination with the odd press conference and accompanying press release in the national English language papers will not do.

Also printed in the Daily Monitor

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Mbarara Police Swoop Counter-productive

Early in the morning on Wednesday 3rd July 2013 the police in Mbarara municipality conducted a pre-dawn security operation in the municipality’s Kakoba division ostensibly to weed out criminal elements that have been terrorising the area's residents for some time. The event that triggered this operation was, supposedly, the murder of a World Food Programme employee Andrew Mpubani, who was killed outside his home in the area a few days earlier. During the raid the police rounded up hundreds of people and detained as suspects those who could not immediately identify themselves with resident identity cards.
While the police should ordinarily be applauded for vigorously trying to combat crime, one cannot help but think that the Kakoba operation was nothing more than a show for the public and media, which will ultimately prove counter-productive.
 In a country which has no national ID and in which one has no legal obligation to carry an ID, it makes no sense to demand ID from random individuals and arresting those that do not have any identification. Even if, for arguments sake, we assumed that everybody had some sort of ID, how does carrying one prove that the individual is not a criminal or that not having any ID proves that one is intent on doing harm or committing a crime?

Anybody who has walked along Nasser road or Kampala road, around Cairo International Bank, in Kampala will tell you that "Resident IDs" are sold in the open. It is therefore more than likely that Mbarara has its own areas where such IDs are sold. On top of the fact that these IDs have no weight of legality to them, what is to prevent a criminal from owning up to 5 different ones, all conveniently signed and stamped (another thing that is easy to forge)?  Does the police have a record of all LC1 officials’ signatures and official stamps against which to cross-check.  Even if one had a duly signed, stamped and recognised Resident ID, how does that in any way prove that they are/were not involved in committing crimes?

The Uganda Police should get serious and invest in doing proper policing as opposed to operating through reactive knee-jerk operations. They should invest in cultivating community cooperation and in encouraging the citizens to be vigilant and act as the eyes and ears of the police as a way of helping the police to help them.

The "panda gari” tactics employed in Mbarara are another result of filling the Uganda Police Force with military people who do not know much about civil policing. They lack the skills and finesse to carefully carry out investigations that are likely to yield better results than their preferred tactics of running roughshod over all that's in their wake, which only serves to alienate the very people they are meant to serve and whose help they need to do their work better.

While the police might claim that the operation was a success because they got a few weapons and army uniforms, there is no indication that they are any closer to solving the insecurity issues in the town yet in all likelihood they have made many Kakoba residents unhappy and resentful. This does not bode well for the future of the harmonious relations between the police and the people they are meant to serve and protect.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Fare Thee Well James Gandolfini

So, James Gandolfini is dead.

Ordinarily an American actor's death would mean nothing more for me than a few minutes on the news and I'd be back to whatever I was doing. However, Gandolfini's passing triggered some personal memories.

Kept me company before
I found The Sopranos
No, no, I didn't know "Tony Soprano" personally. However, 5 years ago I moved to Beijing where I was to live for almost a year and the first few weeks were quite lonely because I had just moved into a sparsely furnished apartment with no TV or anything I could pass time with and I had no friends. I bought a used laptop shortly after and one day as I was going home I came across a street vendor with all Six seasons of the Sopranos (which had just wrapped up a few months before). I cannot say I was a fan of the show having only watched a the first few episodes of season one on DSTV around 7 years earlier, but it was the only one he had in English and I was really not looking forward to another night in an empty flat with only Yangjing
beer and some tasty orange coloured chicken from the street vendor round the corner  to keep me company.

Anyway I bought all 6 DVDs and went home to watch them. For the next few weeks I watched 2 or 3 episodes per day (initially I was stretching it until I found a supplier of other English language DVDs) and before long Tony, Carmela, Meadow, Junior, Chris, Silvio, Paulie and all the other characters became close acquaintances.

So that's why Gandolfini's death brought back all those memories of those first few weeks in an empty Beijing flat with only The Sopranos to keep me company.

RIP Tony Soprano you made this Ugandan's life a lot less dull