NAIROBI, Kenya — At least 2,208 investors have applied for commercial and community FM radio licenses in Kenya. They will have to wait, because the country has exhausted the available spectrum under the current analog broadcasting band. The number could be more because the count on Kenya’s Communications Authority’s (CA) records is from February 2022.
According to the Kenyan broadcasting regulator, a total of 227 FM radio stations are currently licensed, clogging the spectrum and forcing the authority to start adopting a digital audio broadcasting regime.
Ezra Chiloba, CEO of the CA, said radio broadcasting services in Kenya are primarily FM, based on ITU GE84 Plan in the 87.5–108 MHz band. “However, the available spectrum in this band has dwindled as new stations are licensed. Currently, there are constraints on the availability of FM frequencies. This is the reason why we are introducing digital audio broadcasting,” he said.
He added, “We cannot issue new FM radio licenses without compromising the quality of the current radio broadcast.”
The CA says there is interference between co-channel and adjacent channel analog FM transmissions caused by the need to accommodate as many analog FM stations as possible on the limited FM frequency band. “In addition, the shortwave and medium-wave services primarily provided by the public broadcaster continue to lose audiences due to poor quality audio, high costs of operation and maintenance and the gradual phasing out of these technologies,” notes the CA in its report on digital broadcasting titled, “Digital audio broadcasting framework.”
The shift to digital
Kenya will start rolling out digital audio broadcasting in early 2024. According to Chiloba, the country will not switch off analog radio transmissions, as happened during the migration into digital television broadcasting; instead, digital audio and analog will run concurrently.
The authority said it sees the introduction of digital radio broadcasting as a win-win for the industry. For broadcasters, it provides an opportunity for wider coverage, new business opportunities and lower barriers to entry because of shared signal distribution infrastructure. “Like in digital terrestrial television, it will be possible to separate content service provision from network/signal distribution infrastructure so that broadcasters can concentrate on content while signal distributors can concentrate on the rollout of transmission infrastructure,” noted the CA report.
It says that using a digital multiplex signal to carry multiple radio channels reduces costs and power consumption per channel compared to FM. “In the long term, digital audio broadcasting offers a lower cost of distribution compared to FM, which can enable investment in enhanced coverage.”
For audiences, the introduction of digital radio broadcasting will increase choices of services, offer improved audio quality, ease searchability and provide opportunities for value-added features such as visual slideshow displays, traffic information and emergency messaging.
Not plain sailing
However, the CA sees various challenges, such as digital radio receivers are likely to be expensive and, therefore, out of reach for many Kenyans. While analog receivers can cost as little as the Kenyan shilling equivalent of US$3.50, a digital receiver can cost at least $15. The CA says it will seek a policy intervention with the National Treasury to help bring that price down.
The regulator also worries that some existing FM broadcasters may sabotage the introduction of digital radio because they see it as a threat to their business models. It also says that funding the initial capital costs to roll out the digital audio broadcasting network may be challenging at this time as the government’s finances are squeezed by loan servicing obligations.
Introducing digital radio broadcasting is expected to entrench radio as the preferred medium of infotainment in Kenya. According to research done by the Kenya-based Infotrak Research & Consulting, radio usage as a source of news rose to 78% of the people surveyed, compared to 74% in 2022. Other data shows that at least 21 million out of 30 million Kenyan adults listen to radio.
In preparation for digital radio, several radio stations, including those under Royal Media Services — which has 14 radio stations — NRG, and Radio Msenangu, among others, have started installing digital production hardware, including ultracompact digital audio consoles.
The author is the chief executive officer of Africa Trade News.