Yet another deadline set by the South African government to complete the now 10-year-overdue migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television has been allowed to slide.
In a performance agreement signed between President Cyril Ramaphosa and communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and published on Tuesday, the minister has agreed to the target of March 2023 to implement the broadcasting digital migration programme. This is despite Ndabeni-Abrahams stating previously that the project would be completed by the end of 2021.
At the same time — and in a development likely to disappoint the telecommunications sector — the minister and the president have agreed to a target of March 2024 to complete the licensing of 5G spectrum. Operators are keen to get their hands on this spectrum as soon as possible to deploy commercial 5G infrastructure and communications regulator Icasa has said it plans to license some 5G-suitable spectrum next year.
The new target date for digital migration is likely to renew calls for the project to be scrapped in favour of satellite distribution. Already, the SABC has said it favours a shift to satellite technology and away from expensive terrestrial distribution, especially outside the main urban centres.
The latest development comes after Ndabeni-Abrahams contradicted her acting director-general, Nomvuyiso Batyi, who said in an interview with TechCentral in September that South Africa would complete its digital migration project by 2022 at the earliest. Following that interview, the minister used a public forum to contradict the acting DG’s remarks, reaffirming the December 2021 deadline.
Way behind schedule
Batyi said in the TechCentral interview that much work still needed to be done in the broadcast digital migration project and that if she was “generous” in her forecasting of the timelines, the project would be done by 2022. But that date could easily slip even further given that a complex digital “restacking” of frequencies must still take place after migration is done, she warned.
South Africa’s digital migration project is already more than five years behind a deadline government agreed to with the International Telecommunication Union — an agency of the United Nations — to switch off analogue broadcasts. That was meant to happen by no later than June 2015. The communications minister in the Thabo Mbeki administration, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, originally committed South Africa to completing the project in November 2010. By that measure, the country is now more than a decade behind schedule.
Migration will not only free up radio frequency spectrum for mobile broadband – its principal objective – but will also allow new broadcasters to be licensed and for existing ones, both free-to-air and subscription players, to expand their offerings.
In the performance agreement between Ramaphosa and Ndabeni-Abrahams, the minister has also agreed, among other things, to:
- Revise the current pricing methodology in legislation to include direct price regulation of retail prices – surely a concern for operators and proponents of the free market – and to shorten the time for market reviews.
- Ensure Icasa is adequately resourced to license 4G spectrum.
- Issue a policy direction for 5G by December 2021 (later than originally anticipated).
- Ensure 5G spectrum is licensed and that network roll-out has commenced by March 2024 (much later than originally anticipated).
- Aim for 80% of the population to have access to the Internet by 2024.
- Oversee the implementation of phase 2 of government’s SA Connect broadband plan, focusing on 42 000 government sites. As part of this, the minister must review the model of SA Connect to increase private sector participation with government as a buyer of services.
- Introduce the State Digital Infrastructure Company Bill.
- Work to reduce the current cost of data by 50%. “South Africa will be in the top 10 in Africa for the price of 1GB data by 2024.”
- Amend the Electronic Communications Act to address “issues of competition”.
- Engage national treasury and the department of trade, industry & competition on “financial and non-financial incentives for the industry to increase fibre roll-out”. — © 2020 NewsCentral Media