Why Ugandans are shifting from pay TV to digital TV

by Musa Hashim Kasibante
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Uganda’s pay-TV market is served by a combination of satellite, cable and digital terrestrial networks, with seven licensed content aggregators whose premium content is shown across the country.

By 2021, the country had seven TV subscription providers comprising of Dstv, Kampala Siti Cable which relays information by cable, StarSat and StarTimes that use terrestrial mode of broadcasting while the rest rely on satellite to broadcast their televised content these include Zuku TV, Azam TV, and GoTV which is a subsidiary of Multichoice Uganda. 

On January 13, 2021, The Daily Monitor published an article titled “Pay Tv firms lose 20,000 customers in three months.” In this story authored by Justus Lyatuu, Pay television players experienced another contraction translating into a loss of about 20,000 subscribers between July and September 2020, a recent report by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) revealed.

The UCC report also detailed that the sustained contraction in the active pay TV market is a consequence of the continued suspension of major Sports Leagues due to the Covid-19; although some of these resumed towards the end of the review period under strict limitations.

The regulator’s report also indicated that other market segments registered significant growth under the circumstances, total active pay-TV subscriptions contracted from 1.56 million accounts at the end of June 2020 to 1.54 million at the end of September 2020.

A challenging economy has been blamed for this situation, even after the return of major sports leagues like Premier League, LaLiga and Serie A and others on a global scale, the subscription TV market’s suppressed performance may be attributed to the challenging economic climate that left many consumers financially constrained following lockdown.

UCC’s market performance report of quarter three of that year indicates that even with some business activity restarting, household pay-TV subscriptions might not be considered a priority for households facing economic challenges.

The communications commission recently stated that; “Active subscribers are at 1.56 million as of June 2020, compared to 1.58 million in the preceding quarter. This translates to a market contraction of 2 per cent.”

The report further explains that the sustained contraction in the active pay TV market is a consequence of the continued suspension of major Sports Leagues due to the Covid-19; although some of these resumed towards the end of the review period under strict limitations.

MultiChoice’s Head of Marketing Colin Asiimwe in 2020 admitted that the year was a tough period for pay TV business.

 “The environment was hard for our customers that is why we are launching a cheaper decoder that will allow them to access our service,” noted Colin Asiimwe. 

Generally speaking, the digital landscape in Uganda has had its fair share of challenges and upheavals some of which are captured below in the analysis regarding this topic.

At the turn of the century, Uganda had an internet penetration of 0.2 per cent, showing its infancy at the time. There were limited national frameworks directly pertaining to internet infrastructure, regulations and use. However, usage was steadily growing and by 2005, internet penetration stood at 1.5 per cent.

This revelation is compiled in a report by open docs commissioned by the Institute of Development Studies and authored by Juliet Nanfuka in 2021.

According to Nanfuka more media houses had started generating online content these emerging players in the media space some of whom are independent individuals and entities, some of whom were very critical of the state.

 “The government regulatory body, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), had been established in 1995 and in early 2003 set up the Rural Communications Development Fund, which sought to develop communications infrastructure beyond the country’s urban centres and enable last-mile access,” says the report published in 2021.

Internet penetration has increased substantially since the early days; at the end of June 2020, internet penetration stood at 46 internet connections for every 100 Ugandans, according to the UCC.

Data published by Oakla indicates that internet users in Uganda could have expected the following internet connection speeds at the start of 2022:

  • Median mobile internet connection speed via cellular networks11.85 Mbps.
  • Median fixed internet connection speed: 9.25Mbps. 

Ookla’s data reveals that the median mobile internet connection speed in Uganda increased by 4.54 Mbps (+62.1 percent) in the twelve months to the start of 2022.

Meanwhile, Ookla’s data shows that fixed internet connection speeds in Uganda increased by 2.42 Mbps (+35.4 percent) during the same period.

In 2006, the government ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to a website that published anti-government stories, radiokatwe.com.

 It accused the website of publishing ‘malicious and false information against the ruling party NRM and its presidential candidate’ (CPJ 2006).

This happened in the same year that the first multiparty elections were held in Uganda.

According to the report, the practice of blocking or closing media houses would become a common form of censorship, often in the guise of maintaining public order or preventing incitement of violence. Often, it served to drown out criticism of the state.

In 2009, the government of Uganda closed (the now defunct) Broadcasting Council of four radio stations, which were accused of fanning ethnic tensions (Eastern Africa Journalists Association 2009).

These actions contributed to self-censorship by journalists and ordinary citizens alike on digital platforms.

In response to the 2010 Al-Shabaab bombings in Kampala, and in the support of the ‘national security’ argument often cited by the state, in 2011 the Computer Misuse Act, the Electronic Signatures Act and the Electronic Transactions Act were signed into law with no process of public consultation. These have been used against civil society actors, as well as critics of the state.

 In 2011, the second presidential election was held. During that year, the regulations accompanying the Access to Information Act of 2005 were introduced. However, despite this progressive law, the 1964 Official Secrets Act continued to be cited as the basis for not disclosing information that should be in the public domain, including through open access platforms (e.g. www. askyourgov.ug).

Thus, the work of civil society has continued to be undermined due to limited access to information, despite the presence of this law aimed at promoting transparency and accountability of state organs (Kyogabirwe 2017).

Some early social media campaigns were tightly linked to shrinking civic space and social justice concerns, such as the 2011 #WalkToWork protest and campaign (Oola 2011), which were in response to rising fuel and food prices.

Meanwhile, the state also recognised the engaging nature of social media. ISPs temporarily blocked access to Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours following the #WalkToWork protests.

On page 97 in the Uganda Digital Rights Landscape Report which compiled lessons from ten African countries in line with “digital rights in closing civic space”

Juliet Nafuka in her compilation notes that In July 2012, according to a ministerial policy statement the Office of the President was looking for funds to purchase equipment that would enable interception of communications (Kiggundu 2012).

The government’s interest in intercepting communications raised concern among civil society actors and the media. In 2013, the Uganda Communications Act was introduced. It enabled the communications regulator to ‘monitor, inspect, license, supervise, control, and regulate communications services’ and to ‘monitor, and enforce compliance relating to content’ (Freedom House 2016).

By 2013, the state announced that it would monitor social media users, ‘who are bent to cause a security threat to the nation’ (CIPESA 2013), reigniting language used upon the introduction of the 2002 Anti-Terrorism Act and the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act of 2010. Both acts had elevated the surveillance powers of the state, reinforcing a culture of self-censorship online and raising surveillance concerns among civil society.

The 2014 call for public commentary on the Data Protection and Privacy Bill did little to alleviate surveillance concerns.

 In 2013, two newspaper outlets were closed following allegations of the distribution of a letter detailing an alleged assassination plot of officials opposed to the president. This led to a widespread campaign for press freedom (Natabaalo 2013).

The hashtags #MonitorSiege and #RedPepperSiege were used to generate awareness and to challenge the state’s actions. The media houses were re-opened after 11 days.

 “In 2015, amendments were made to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002 to align the law with international requirements by providing for aspects of terror financing and money laundering. Police were consequently granted the power to conduct surveillance of online transactions with the aim of establishing the sources of funding of terrorism activities. In the same year, the crackdown on commentators who relied on social media had already begun, with voices critical of the ruling party and independent media being curtailed,” reveals Nanfuka.

This was often in the guise of promoting public order and unity, as well as preventing the spread of false information, but damaged open dialogue on elections, including by hampering free speech. Among these was the arrest of state critic Robert Shaka on allegations of being behind the pseudonym Tom Voltaire Okwalinga; and, under Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act, on charges of using computers and other electronic devices to issue ‘offensive communication’ (NITA 2011). There is no evidence to suggest that Shaka was responsible. Mass surveillance concerns were also heightened in 2015, following reports that Uganda had procured Remote Control System (RCS), a product developed by the Hacking Team (an Italian company that sells intrusion and surveillance technology), which enables access to major operating systems and mobile platforms (Frenkel 2015).

Earlier in the year, the state had issued a directive to telecom companies to block and regulate text messages that could ‘instigate hatred, violence and unrest’ during the presidential election period (Echwalu 2011).

However, this was also seen as a move to stifle communications. In 2012, the #AskThePM hashtag campaign aimed to provide a platform for the then prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, to engage with Twitter users more immediately and directly. This campaign tried to address the public image of the Office of the Prime Minister, which had been accused of embezzling US$12.7m with disastrous consequences for public service delivery and infrastructure.


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