More 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.
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