UCC sets 2020 as target for digital radio, but questions linger on readiness

If all goes according to plan, Uganda will make the leap into digital audio broadcasting by 2020 and leave behind the traditional analogue broadcasting, according to the Uganda Communications Commission.

Digital radio, or high-definition radio, converts analog audio into a digital signal and transmits it to an assigned channel on the AM or, more usually, FM frequency ranges.

Isaac Kalembe, UCC’s media relations officer, said that the country will start the process of transitioning to digital radio after the trial and piloting of digital terrestrial television (DTT), a process that is still ongoing.

“Our target is 2020, and we hope that by then we will have done whatever is necessary,” Mr Kalembe said.

Digital broadcasting, both radio and television, is part of the digital migration process which committed to in 2005, alongside other 197 member nations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). It was recommended that global broadcasters implement the migration from analog to digital broadcasting by June 17, 2015.

UCC has already moved on the digital television (DTT), a process that was rolled out in 2015 amidst complaints from the public over lack of mass awareness, technical hiccups, the poor quality of pay-tv content, and costly technology.

DTT uses spectrum more efficiently and provides more capacity and better quality images than analog. Under the arrangement, for one to watch TV they are required to either use Set Top Boxes (STBs) for free to air channels or satellite dishes provided by pay tv providers such as Multichoice (DStv/Gotv, StarTimes, Zuku Tv and Azam Tv.

Radio broadcasting in Uganda, as in many countries in Africa, is mainly analogue and is dominated by Frequency Modulation (FM).

One DAB radio set costs about $25, or Shs87,500, which is eight times the average cost of an ordinary FM radio set.

As part of preparation for digital radio, UCC, the telecommunications regulator, commissioned a feasibility study carried out between February and November 2016, with the aim of establishing the country’s readiness and the required and available network infrastructure.

The researchers, in the report titled “Introduction of Digital Audio Broadcasting in Uganda, released early year contend that while “FM is a proven technology and has been relied upon for a long time; there is a growing interest in adoption of digital radio, worldwide, owing to its benefits.”

The report indicates that digital radio has already been implemented in 35 countries around the world, mainly in Europe and in Africa only South Africa and Tunisia have conducted trials.

The research team consulted 51 FM radio stations and 425 end-users as well as sellers of radio receivers, consumer organizations and DTV signal distributors.

“If Uganda is to build a nationwide DAB distribution network, there is existing infrastructure upon which this can be done. Leveraging existing infrastructure would make it possible to significantly reduce the initial capital investment for DAB,” the researchers concluded.

Some of the existing infrastructure includes the National Backbone fibre Infrastructure managed by National Information Technology (NITA) and and DTT infrastructure managed by SIGNET.

Digital radio broadcasting, once implemented, according to report, consists of two main sub-systems, namely, content generation and signal distribution.

Content generation is about production of content in studio and converting it into a digital format required at the head-end of the signal distribution sub-system. The signal distribution sub-system comprises all network components from the head-end up to the broadcasting stations.