South Africa’s seemingly neverending migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television has been so beset by problems for so long that it would be almost comical if the repercussions for the country’s economy weren’t so serious.
It’s been more than a year since South Africa missed the original deadline of November 2011 to switch off analogue broadcasts, set by former communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. Yet, in January 2013, commercial digital broadcasts haven’t even started yet. And developments this week have now placed South Africa’s commitment to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to switch off analogue signals by June 2015 in jeopardy. This should have been a deadline we met comfortably.
Dina Pule, the current minister, decided on Monday to apply for leave to appeal a high court judgment handed down in favour of free-to-air broadcaster e.tv over who will manage the conditional access (encryption) system for digital television. E.tv took the minister to court after she decided to hand control of the system to Sentech, a state-owned enterprise in her portfolio. Previously, e.tv and the SABC had expected to manage the encryption system. E.tv argued the minister has exceeded her legal authority in giving the business to Sentech. The court agreed.
Even if Pule and her legal advisers believe they still have a strong case and will win on appeal — e.tv has already said it will oppose any appeal — one has to ask whether it was the right political decision given how far behind South Africa is in migrating to digital television. Many other African nations are ahead of us and are poised to reap the benefits of migration.
It’s these benefits, already slipping through our hands, which make what’s going on now so tragic. By moving broadcasters onto more efficient digital platforms, huge tracts of radio frequency spectrum will be freed up and reassigned for wireless broadband services. The spectrum in question — the “digital dividend” — is ideal for delivering next-generation broadband in parts of the country that are not currently served. It will play a huge role in Pule’s own stated ambitions of having all South Africans connected to the Internet.
The opportunity cost of not freeing up this spectrum as quickly as possible is measurable and far outweighs squabbles over who controls conditional access in digital set-top boxes. The GSM Association, an influential mobile telecoms industry lobby group, reckons that making available a first part of the digital dividend at 800MHz, along with paired spectrum at 2,6GHz, would lead to a US$10,7bn increase in South Africa’s GDP between 2015 and 2020, add $2,2bn in tax revenues and directly and indirectly create more than a million jobs. With the release of a second portion of spectrum at 700MHz — and tied to the 1,8GHz band — a further increase in GDP of $5,2bn is possible, the GSMA says.
It’s clear, then, that the economic cost of further delays is incredibly high. In light of this, it’s difficult to understand Pule’s justification in appealing against the high court’s judgment.
The failure by Pule and her predecessors to meet their own deadlines to shut down analogue television and free up radio frequency spectrum for broadband, as many countries around the world have now done, must not go unchallenged. Telecoms players need access to the spectrum to create the broadband networks that will grow the economy and deliver access to the millions of South Africans who have never connected to the Internet. The country needs strong political leadership on this issue. It was sorely lacking this week. — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media