Cape Town TV, a community television broadcaster, has slammed the way communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has handled the broadcasting digital migration project, saying if she pushes ahead with plans to switch off analogue signals on 31 March, there could be serious implications for industry players and for the viewing public.
Switching off analogue broadcasts in a month’s time could leave millions of South Africans without access to television, Cape Town TV warned following a presentation last week by Ntshavheni to parliament on the status of the project.
“The problem is that the minister is narrowly focused on the roll-out of government-subsidised digital decoders, of which some 1.5 million were manufactured in 2015. She completely ignores those television viewers who do not qualify for the free decoders, who are effectively being forced to migrate their television viewing to the pay-TV platforms, DStv and StarSat, or eMedia’s commercial Openview platform, which does not carry community TV channels,” Cape Town TV said in a statement.
“This means that the free-to-air TV market is being eroded and the future of digital terrestrial television (DTT) looks bleak, with relatively few people having either a digital TV set with built-in DTT tuner or the DTT set-top box,” it added. “This is because set-top boxes are generally unavailable in retailers, particularly in rural areas and because of the relatively high cost of new digital TV sets, which start at around R4 000 – a high cost for poor households.”
Even if all government-ordered set-top boxes are installed in qualifying households, the number represents only about 12% of TV households that receive only free-to-air television, Cape Town TV said in its statement, without providing a source for this data.
“Households with incomes between R3 500 and R12 000 – what has been termed the ‘missing middle’ TV audience – are being forced to pay for their own migration to digital platforms, a scenario which affects some 5.7 million households,” it said, again without providing a source of the information.
Cape Town TV accused Ntshavheni of “misleading the public” by focus only on installed government decoders while “ignoring everyone else”.
“The SABC has reportedly lost 30-40% of its audience share in those provinces where the SABC analogue signal has been switched off, and this figure is likely to be far larger in the major urban centres where analogue broadcasting is still the norm.”
Ntshavheni, who had wanted to complete analogue switch-off last year, was ordered by the constitutional court – following a direct approach to the top court by broadcaster e.tv and others – to consult properly with industry stakeholders before setting a new switch-off date.
But, according to Cape Town TV, “all she has done is simply requested written submissions from broadcasters, declining to hold any discussions or oral presentations”.
Read: Minister’s digital migration move leaves SABC in lurch (paywall)
“While the minister has said that she will ‘engage with the affected parties’ on this matter, she also says this engagement would simply present her department’s views on their particular concerns rather than engaging in a dialogue with all affected parties, including [broadcasting platform operator] Sentech and [communications regulator] Icasa, to find a solution, which we believe is necessary,” it said.
“Free-to-air broadcasters are already engaging with Sentech and Icasa in positing a solution that retains analogue broadcasting in frequencies under the 700MHz band which are expressly reserved for television broadcasting. This solution will enable those poor households that do not qualify for government decoders to retain their access to all free-to-air channels while not affecting those frequencies that have been sold to cellular operators to widen mobile connectivity,” Cape Town TV added in its statement.
Ntshavheni was travelling abroad on Tuesday and was not immediately available to comment. TechCentral has asked her spokesman to respond to Cape Town TV’s claims and will update this article if and when feedback is provided. – © 2023 NewsCentral Media