Several delays in the regulatory process necessary to roll out government’s subsidised television set-top boxes for digital terrestrial television indicate continuing indecision and possible manipulation by broadcasting industry players, individuals in state entities and deployed ANC cadres.
The international deadline for switchover to digital broadcasting is mid-2015, yet South Africa is nowhere close to meeting this deadline.
Two non-events of the past week caused alarm bells to ring on this issue.
Firstly, minister of telecommunications and postal services Siyabonga Cwele cavalierly responded that the broadcasting digital migration (BDM) policy will be finalised after it has been approved by Cabinet in response to my recent parliamentary question asking when the policy will be presented to cabinet and why it is being so delayed.
South Africans deserve more than this dismissive response on a policy that was ready for cabinet approval before the May 2014 general election.
Secondly, the qualifying criteria for set-top box subsidies were due to be published in the 26 September Government Gazette. They did not appear, inexplicably.
Subsequent responses to my enquiries as to why they did not appear revealed that telecoms and postal services director-general Rosey Sekese had asked for them to be held back, pending approval of the revised BDM policy by cabinet.
This raises very serious questions about who is pulling the strings to delay the roll out of digital television.
I urge minister Cwele to come out from the shadows to give a comprehensive clarification on the state of play and who is contesting for control of the lucrative and dynamic broadcasting market.
At a gathering in September, Cwele made, according to an industry analyst, “a lot of noncommittal noises and promised that the whole broad policy would be announced before the end of the financial year”.
The deadline the minister has given himself is just two months before the digital switch-on deadline. This is surely not the time to re-do the policy?
His predecessor, Yunus Carrim, was frank and open about the challenges facing the digital migration strategy, the competing interests and the hard choices he was having to make. And the sector started to trust him because he was prepared to break the impasse.
In presentations made on progress to parliament’s portfolio committee on telecoms and postal services last month, all the entities involved left more questions unanswered than answered, particularly about the full extent of costs, identification, training and management of set-top box installers, the logistics and support infrastructure of the roll-out phase, and responsibility for ongoing support.
The digital broadcasting strategy seems to be gathering a perfect storm of misguided policy, government ineptitute, meddling by self-interested players, unrealistic expectations of set-top box beneficiaries and spiralling costs in a climate of economic meltdown.
The cabinet needs to make the courageous decision to prune the scope of the set-top box manufacturing and subsidy scheme to exclude the enrichment of politicians, state employees, connected cronies and influential private sector players, and deliver digital television on time, with no further delays.
- Marian Shinn is a Democratic Alliance MP