SA misses more than digital TV deadline - TechCentral

SA misses more than digital TV deadline

Duncan-McLeod-180-profileMore than a decade after South Africa started preparing to switch off analogue terrestrial television, the deadline government agreed to with other nations to end the broadcasts has not been met.

This Wednesday, 17 June, marks the date that the country agreed, with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — an agency of the United Nations — to terminate analogue broadcasting signals in a co-ordinated, worldwide process meant to free up valuable radio frequency spectrum for wireless broadband.

South Africa has not only failed to meet the deadline, but has failed even to switch on commercial digital broadcasts. Government must shoulder the bulk of the blame, although broadcasters should also be ashamed for sometimes school playground-like behaviour that has undoubtedly contributed to this sorry state of affairs.

It’s been said many times before, both on this website and elsewhere, but the consequences of missing the ITU deadline bear repeating.

Firstly, not getting a move-on with migration means South Africans are being robbed of more voices in television. Digital broadcasting makes much more efficient use of spectrum, so, even while broadcasters will hand back big chunks of it to be reallocated for broadband, they’ll be able to launch many more channels. And new licences can be issued, potentially increasing the diversity of voices in South African media.

But it is the second consequence which is much more serious. By not vacating the so-called “digital dividend” spectrum bands — the ones below 800MHz — and missing the ITU deadline, broadcasters (and by extension, government, which manages the process) are holding up the expansion of Internet access to poorer South Africans. And it means slower Internet and higher prices for longer for those who are already online.

When former communications minister, the late Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, announced more than 10 years ago that South Africa would complete its migration from analogue to digital television by November 2011, the deadline looked easily achievable.

Sentech, the state-owned broadcasting signal distributor, immediately set to work upgrading its infrastructure to be ready for the switchover. It has done an excellent job in this regard and was, in fact, essentially ready years ago for commercial switch-on.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way. First, the country spent a year bending to lobbyists from Japan and Brazil who wanted the country to abandon its commitment — made when Matsepe-Casaburri was minister — to use the European standard for digital broadcasts.

The country ended up opting for an updated version of the European standard, but only after the communications minister at the time, Siphiwe Nyanda, and his director-general, Mamodupi Mohlala – who couldn’t stand the sight of each other – were removed.

That should have paved the way for migration to begin. If only. At the time, a damaging war between DStv parent MultiChoice and free-to-air broadcaster e.tv over the use of encryption or “conditional access” in the set-top boxes government would subsidise for poorer households was only getting started.

Various lawsuits have flowed, with intense lobbying by both sides. The fallout has been ugly, with former communications minister Yunus Carrim, who tried to reach a middle ground, removed by President Jacob Zuma, and the department of communications split in two. The full story of what exactly motivated Zuma to fire the hard-working Carrim and split communications is yet to be told, but rumours of influence peddling abound.

Out with the old ... South Africa will this week miss the deadline to switch off analogue television broadcasts

Out with the old … South Africa will this week miss the deadline to switch off analogue television broadcasts

The new communications minister, Faith Muthambi, has made progress with the project, publishing a final – but disputed – policy on digital migration that rejects the use of conditional access in the government set-top boxes. This reversed an earlier position presented by Carrim and adopted by cabinet. E.tv is taking that case on review at the high court, again threatening to delay migration.

Cabinet has yet to announce a date for commercial digital switch-on, and presumably won’t until the high court hands down judgment in the e.tv matter, which is expected soon. In the meantime, Muthambi has been busying herself visiting neighbouring countries to ensure there isn’t cross-border signal interference should those countries start repurposing the digital dividend for broadband.

The fact is, though, that, like South Africa, most of the rest of Africa is well behind in moving from analogue to digital. There are a few countries that have done well, including Kenya, Tanzania and Mauritius. Most are still far behind.

But South Africa should not be benchmarking itself against Africa’s laggards. It should have led the continent, but hasn’t.

Digital migration is crucial for putting the Internet in the hands of all South Africans. Access has a transformative effect on societies and economies. By making a hash of South Africa’s migration project, government has made a mockery of its own promises to bridge the digital divide and lift millions of citizens out of poverty. All those responsible for South Africa missing the ITU deadline ought to hang their heads in shame.

  • Duncan McLeod is TechCentral’s editor. Find him on Twitter

32 Comments

  1. Johan Slabbert on

    What urgency is there now, if any to complete the switch over? This country keeps on missing opportunities. I am not angry anymore. Just sad…

  2. BabeSug Gorgeouss on

    Who is in charge of this programme, one might ask? Another glorified university enrollee who dropped out after registering for a higher degree and then dropped out of that one two, then took a two week visit to do a Harvard University paid tour or gardening or whatever it is these people are doing at Harvard on a campus tour or Utrecht for a touring Diploma, and then come back and become a Chief Operating Officer or Executive? So, it is entirely legitimate to ask, who is in charge of this programme, for there might lie issues. Because the ‘signal’ may not be reaching the ‘head’ office.

  3. Yet again the Association of Notorious Criminals prove their worth(lessness) to SA, if there is the smallest iota of a chance that cronyism and ineptitude will sink the SA ship, it is guaranteed that they will do exceedinging well in achieving that goal.

  4. So what’s new? Just another disaster in the day of the anc led government to illustrate their total ineptitude and lack of understanding of any issue you wish to name.

  5. Graeme Addison on

    A first rate article putting the digital tv issue in context. Thanks Duncan.

  6. Your comments are relative.

    Your pictures are painful, irrelevant and unnecessary.

  7. Outstanding detailed article Duncan, what most people don’t know is to what extent this affects the general population on internet connectivity in the cellular space. The article touched on this but the reality is the effect is massive.

    Every one wants 4G, 5G, LTE and faster download speeds but these are the things preventing it. Wake up regulator !!!!

    PLEASE, we want to move forward…

  8. Name any sector! Its in decay it started in 2008, unfortunately it all points one way!

  9. The sad reality for South Africa is that the rest of the contintent is already moving forward with vacating the 700MHz band (Digital Dividend 2) with some countries having launched LTE networks in 800MHz years back.

  10. William Stucke on

    > Wake up regulator !!!!
    Pardon? Did you actually read the article that you are lauding? Duncan quite clearly says that the blame lies with the Minister. It’s the Minister’s responsibility to specify two dates: Digital Switch On and Analogue Switch Off. The latter should have been by today, but since the first hasn’t happened yet, that’s rather difficult.
    Everyone else has been ready for some time, including Sentech, as Duncan says, the broadcasters (even the SABC!) and ICASA. Why does the regulator need to wake up? The regulator is wide awake on this issue, has published appropriate regulations, pointed out to Government that they have forgotten the second, digital to digital migration, and even recommended scrapping subsidising STBs and instead making a contribution towards consumers buying an IDTV.
    I do agree, though, that it’s a good article

  11. William Stucke on

    But completely irrelevant. This is not the appropriate place for them.

  12. Do the right thing on

    Thats what you get for replacing Minister Carrim , at least he delivered.The current minister is what she is , a political appointee.Enough said.

  13. ” a political appointee”.
    That is a clear euphemism for a spineless, clueless, unscrupulous stooge.
    Faith, Hlaudi, Siyabonga and all their ilk received some nice kickbacks from Oom Koos, the big boss of Naspers, pulling the strings in SA’s broadcasting sector behind the screens. They got their billions.

  14. Vusumuzi Sibiya on

    How does…

    >>Faith, Hlaudi, Siyabonga and all their ilk received some nice kickbacks from Oom Koos,

    …or even better still; Shinn receiving kickbacks from ETV – in any way mend the situation?

    It’s just accusations without any proof…

    What you need to do is find out where G Jurgens gets his pictures; and post one that is relevant – or contact crime line with the evidence of the accusations that you’re making.

  15. Yes How Did You Know ! If You Never Had Chocolate you Have Never HAD SWEETS

  16. The decay started earlier. Probably even 1976, and initially it accelerated only slowly, but the rate of acceleration has increased dramatically since Zooma added his destructive energy to it.

  17. “But it is the second consequence which is much more serious. By not vacating the so-called “digital dividend” spectrum bands — the ones below 800MHz — and missing the ITU deadline, broadcasters (and by extension, government, which manages the process) are holding up the expansion of Internet access to poorer South Africans.”

    Exactly – Internet should be available to everyone. So should Internet on TV sets.

  18. Vusumuzi Sibiya on

    And for that to be done effectively, keep government as far away as you can from being involved where they aren’t needed…

    …there’s no need to invite the kind of problems experienced with most undertakings where government is a stakeholder into the expansion of Internet access to poorer South Africans.

    Let private enterprise drive this process with their own funds and that way it will be of benefit to those it is intended to help.

  19. “Digital migration is crucial for putting the Internet in the hands of all South Africans. Access has a transformative effect on societies and economies. By making a hash of South Africa’s migration project, government has made a mockery of its own promises to bridge the digital divide and lift millions of citizens out of poverty.”

    Gov is, interalia, busy sorting out the aerial issue – “Mobile telephone networks 4G/LTE partly use the same bandwidth as DVB-T and therefore might create interference that dilutes the clearness of the signal. One For All aerials have a build-in LTE/4G filter to take away this interference, ensuring crystal clear reception.”