Next year was meant to be a big one for South Africa’s technology industry. Years ago, under the Mbeki administration, the government agreed with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that the country would switch off analogue terrestrial television broadcasts by 17 June 2015.
Countries worldwide agreed to the deadline as part of an initiative to free up spectrum — the “digital dividend” in the 700MHz and 800MHz bands — for mobile broadband.
Many countries, including some in Africa, have already completed their migration projects. Last week, Kenya was lauded by the GSMA, an association that represents the mobile industry, for announcing it will switch off analogue signals in March 2015, beating the ITU deadline by months.
South Africa’s digital migration project, by contrast, has stumbled from farce to tragedy. The country will miss the June deadline. Indeed, the country might not even have started commercial digital broadcasts by then, let alone switched off analogue signals. The economic cost of these delays runs into the billions, according to the GSMA.
Instead of moving to fast-track the long-delayed project, President Jacob Zuma did possibly the most damaging thing he could have: he removed his hard-working communications minister, Yunus Carrim, and split the department of communications in two, leading to a protracted turf war between two new ministers, Siyabonga Cwele and Faith Muthambi, over who should run migration.
Since the May election, almost nothing has happened to advance this crucial project.
The characteristics of the broadcasting spectrum that will be freed up mean it is ideally suited for delivering broadband in more rural parts of the country and doing so profitably. Conspiracy theorists have suggested the never-ending delays in digital migration are a ploy by the ANC to keep the Internet — and, by extension, information — out of the hands of the rural poor, who it will increasingly rely on to keep it in power. But I don’t buy that. This is a tale of government incompetence, not some Machiavellian plot.
Of course, it would appear that expanding control over the SABC’s current affairs programming was at the heart of Zuma’s hasty and poorly thought through decision to split the communications department in two, creating what some critics have labelled the “department of propaganda” under Muthambi, the new communications minister. That the SABC now reports to the same minister as the Government Communication and Information System is clearly problematic. How much longer will it be before Zuma emulates PW Botha by calling the SABC newsroom directly when the news isn’t to his liking? Heck, the president probably already has Hlaudi Motsoeneng on speed dial.
But back to digital migration. In a presidential proclamation last week — the second since the election — Zuma set out more clearly the delineation between the telecommunications & postal services department and the new department of communications. Muthambi will lead the digital TV project. That decision only took seven months — there are six months left to the ITU deadline.
The first thing Muthambi needs to admit is that there is no way South Africa will meet the deadline. Many other African nations will beat us to the punch. They will grow their economies more quickly than us because they will allocate the digital dividend to telecoms operators before we do. But missing the ITU deadline is no excuse not to get the project completed as fast as possible.
Firm leadership is required to deal with the war between e.tv and MultiChoice over whether set-top boxes, which consumers will need to receive digital broadcasts, should use encryption. Encryption is a bad idea and ideally should be scrapped, but if it has to be included to get the project done faster, MultiChoice should be persuaded, in the interests of the country, not to take the matter to court. Carrim’s proposals in this regard were far from ideal, but were workable.
Muthambi must then set out the dates when key targets will be met, including when digital broadcasts will be switched on and when analogue broadcasts will be terminated. This period of “dual illumination”, during which time consumers are expected to buy set-top boxes, needs to be as short as possible. And these deadlines must be kept. Unfortunately, history suggests they won’t be.
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Find him on Twitter
- This column, which is also published in the Sunday Times, will return on 11 January