OPINION: Kenya’s government should seriously consider subsidising set-top boxes

Debates on whether the Kenyan government can afford to subsidise the cost of set-top boxes or not have existed for a while now as the country prepares to migrate to Digital TV.

The question should not be whether the Kenyan government can afford to subsidise the set-top boxes, but rather, can the government afford not to subsidise them?

Today, information access is as significant a factor in life as breathing. The information era has contributed to the growth of economies across the globe, driven by the adoption of technologies including the Internet, mobile phones and television.

Before the Kenyan government makes a final decision on whether or not they should subsidise the cost of the set-top boxes, it should first take a look down memory lane to a time when people were required to have a permit to own radios and televisions.

The economic growth then was slow, mainly because the majority of the Kenyan population lacked access to information passed via radios and televisions.

The government has waived the payment of the annual radio and television license fees since the beginning of the 1970/1971 financial year. This resulted in increased ownership of radio and TV sets. A 1972 survey showed that there were about 35,000 TV sets and 1,050,000 radio sets in use in Kenya. By 1981, there were an estimated 100,000 TV sets and 1.6 million radio receivers in use. Kenya’s 1999 Population census placed the number at 2,456,594 television sets.

Since the permits were abolished, economic growth has also improved. More and more people could afford to own radios and television sets, which in turn, meant that they could access public information. Farmers could be educated on better farming methods and businessmen informed of available opportunities.

Statistics show that Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased more dramatically since the introduction of mobile phones into the country, implying that access to information and communication is a vital aspect of the economy.

With these facts in mind, then, the government should consider the affordability of the set-top boxes. The average cost of a set-top box in Kenya currently ranges between KSh5,000 and KSh10,000 (US$60-US$120), which rivals the cost of a new television set. To the average Kenyan citizen, the cost is rather high and threatens to lock them out from accessing television broadcasts when the country switches off analogue transmission.

The same history will be repeated: No access to information, slow economic growth.

Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications, was quoted as saying that his department had made proposals to the cabinet which would have seen distribution of free set-top boxes.

However, this was not to be, as it later turned out that the government “does not have sufficient data” on the number of television sets’ in the country.

“We are faced with a super headache of knowing who has a TV. Some people might collect the boxes and sell them in neighboring countries,” Ndemo told members of parliament in the Public Accounts Committee back in August.

During the 2009 census, one of the questions asked was about the number of television and radio sets in a homestead. In fact, Section K of the census questionnaire-Ownership of Household Assets, sought information on the ownership of common assets such as radios, televisions and mobile phones, a question that was applicable to all households. Where did this information go?

It’s time the government took this digital migration more seriously, and invest resources in it with the seriousness it deserves. The census must have provided information on income levels of families that already have television sets. The government should therefore use this information, filter out those who can afford the set-top boxes, and subsidise the cost for those who cannot afford them.

This could place Kenya on the right track towards achieving its own 2013 goal of 100 percent migration to digital signal.

The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of HumanIPO.com

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