Communications minister Faith Muthambi was chastised during a portfolio committee meeting on Thursday about the delays in government’s roll-out of digital migration.
“Your management of this process is found wanting,” said Mmamaloko Kubayi, ANC MP and chairwoman of the portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services.
“This project is moving along at a snail’s pace,” Kubayi added. “We received a presentation on this matter a year ago and a number of assurances were given. You must look at what has been promised to this committee and you must explain why you’ve deviated from it.”
Muthambi, along with representatives from Sentech, the Post Office and the Universal Service & Access Agency of South Africa appeared before a joint committee meeting of parliament on Thursday to give an update on progress made in the implementation of government’s broadcasting digital migration policy.
It’s been more than a year since South Africa missed a deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union of 17 June 2015 to switch over from analogue television to digital broadcasts.
The migration process, once concluded, will will move the SABC from analogue to digital terrestrial television signals and open up spectrum for faster mobile Internet.
Key to the process, however, is government’s subsidised TV set-top boxes. The roll-out thereof, though, has faced several delays because broadcasters haven’t agreed on whether the boxes should be encrypted or not.
Muthambi was put in charge of the digital migration project in 2015, after which she changed government’s policy over encryption in set-top boxes.
Muthambi’s decision not to encrypt these boxes was struck down in the supreme court of appeal earlier this year when e.tv won a court challenge against her. The court ruled that the minister had failed to properly consult relevant parties before deciding not to encrypt the boxes.
However, Muthambi and broadcaster MultiChoice have since taken the decision to the constitutional court. The case is expected to be heard on 17 February 2017.
On Thursday, MPs who attended the committee meeting grilled Muthambi over the decision to take the matter on review in the constitutional court, alleging that it was delaying the digital migration process even further.
But Muthambi was adamant that the power to make and amend policy rests with government.
“As the executive we have the power to decide how we spend the money. As government there’s no way we’re subsidising businesses to do their private business,” she said referring to the decision not to encrypt the set-top boxes.
During the meeting it also transpired that the set-top boxes that had been manufactured were not capable of encryption. This means that if Muthambi is unsuccessful in her court bid, the current set-top boxes — of which there are around 600 000 — are the incorrect ones.
Democratic Alliance MP Marian Shinn, who is a member of the portfolio committee on telecommunications & postal services, said after the meeting that the 600 000 set-top boxes are stored at the Post Office at “great cost”.
“Minister Muthambi has been totally out of her depth since she took over this project,” Shinn said.
“Whatever has made the minister unilaterally change the policy — this has now led to a two-year court battle. It is not worth the financial cost.”
Shinn said the purpose of the migration to digital technology is not to have better quality TV pictures, but to “free up the airwaves” so that the spectrum can be used for wireless broadband.
“This is something the country is desperate for. And as long as this delay perpetuates and we have petty little point scoring going on we are holding back South Africa’s economic growth. It cannot be endured for much longer. We have to break the logjam.”