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Digital TV shift is no big deal. We had a bigger migration war 50 years ago
Charles Onyango Obbo
Posted: 3 years 3 weeks

And so, let me throw in my two pennies worth in the Kenya digital migration debate now that the brass knuckles have come out.

At this point it doesn’t help really to argue whether it’s the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) or the troika of Nation Media Group (with their NTV and QTV), The Citizen, or KTN who are right in the squabble. Perhaps the only thing worth repeating here is why digital TV migration is happening all over the world.

Primarily it is to release spectrum which can be used for other services. The world has run out of spectrum as population and demand grows, so it was agreed to shift to digital signal that can be encoded and compressed –allowing more channels to be broadcast. At least minimum of eight new video channels can be provided in the same frequency as one analogue channel.

The digital signal is clearer, of course, and the shift opens tremendous new opportunities for content creators. For example, one industry source says Kenya could have at least 120 new TV channels by this time next year! However, the sharp images that digital broadcast provides, and the new innovation opportunities, are merely incidental.

The really striking things about digital TV migration is what it tells us about how our world is changing, and how painful change can be.

In Africa, we haven’t seen anything like it for nearly 50 years. And no, the last major wave of change wasn’t independence from European colonialism from the late 1950s through the next 15 or so years.

It was the conversation to the metric system of weights and measures from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Before that there had been several systems of measures, beginning with the early Roman Empire, but it was in early 1800s that the British refined the “Imperial system” (feet, inches, pounds) that became a global standard and survived for 150 years until the shift to the metric system.

However, a handful of countries, including the USA, have not yet fully gone metric, so a bit of the Imperial System endures.

But that is not the telling story. The metric system was developed in France around 1799, and countries like Ireland only adopted it in 2005, a 206 year journey. The analogue signal, on the other hand, has been around for about 90 years, a tiny bit of the long life of the foot and inch.

It tells us that the mortality rate for technologies where there is a lot of innovation is getting higher and higher. It is not a Kenyan thing. It’s just the way the world is.

The same tensions and anguish we are seeing today happened in the late 60s and 70s over the metric. Don’t think the shopkeepers and butchers gave away their pound scales without screaming.

All school textbooks had to be trashed. In Uganda my old man (bless him), a man of science and numbers, was one of the authors of the pioneer metric conversion school textbooks. He was considered a tormentor for his pains, and nicknamed “Mr Binary.”

But really that was all that could happen then, because it was not a democratic age in Africa. The one-party systems and military dictatorships were rising, and Africans were still not as educated as they are today.

The fact that we are having the fight we are having over digital migration is good, because it shows we are more educated, there is more democratic space and people are exercising their right to complain, and that our social and business organisation has got more sophisticated.

The NTV, KTN, and Citizen troika are actually an organised lobby – Africans just weren’t able to set up lobbies against the metric system, because there were hardly any of them in big business, though the metric conversion was probably 10 times more disruptive than digital migration.

The battle for GMS (the Global System for Mobile Communications) was won surprisingly easily and quickly.

As the world standardises we shall see more and bigger battles, with experts predicting that in the years to come we shall have to agree to drive on the same side (keep left), as it would save trillions of dollars. Can you imagine the war?

You can therefore say that after the metric conversion, digital TV migration has been our second major practice for the big one.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. Twitter:@cobbo3