South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT) has been glacial. Not only has the country missed the June 2015 deadline agreed to with the International Telecommunication Union to switch off analogue TV transmissions, but it hasn’t even started the process of distributing the set-top boxes that will be required to receive the digital signals.
The farce has gone on so long that I think many have just forgotten about it, thinking that anything that can have gone on for so long with such little result cannot be very important. But that’s the thing, it is really important.
And not important for the reasons that the politicians, broadcasters and local manufacturers would have you believe.
The real importance of DTT isn’t job creation, it isn’t about representation in the ICT or manufacturing industries and it definitely isn’t about delivering communication and services to the population, despite what the various spokespeople from government may say.No, the primary importance of DTT is that it makes an increasingly scarce resource available for communications: radio spectrum.
Because digital television transmission is significantly more efficient than analogue, fewer frequency bands are required to broadcast more content. And that means that huge swathes of spectrum in the 700MHz and 800MHz frequency bands become available — the digital dividend.
These frequency bands are important because the existing frequencies used for telecommunications are nearly used up, and because of the physical attributes of radio signals in these bands.
Lower frequency radio signals typically travel further and are less affected by physical obstructions like buildings. In a country like South Africa, with vast areas that are underserviced in terms of communications, these frequencies have the potential to offer real solutions. According to the GSMA, a body representing the mobile industry, the digital dividend can add as much as US$49bn to sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP in the period 2015-2017.
But that isn’t going to happen, not in the short term anyway. That’s because the process has been co-opted by incompetents, opportunists and political mountebanks; stifled by corporate greed; and failed by poor policy.
The department of communications has said it is certain the process will be completed in the next 18 to 24 months. That seems unlikely, even if the various court actions by the likes of e.tv are now over. It is telling that the same report from the GSMA states that a delay of 24 months could shave $23bn off the GDP benefits of the digital dividend in sub-Saharan Africa.
Lloyd Gedye, writing on The Con website, reckons the DTT process has cost about R8,5bn (and counting), and he has a really depressing precis of the 10 years since former minister of communications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri started the DTT migration process.
A lighter hand in terms of regulation, without adding pork-barrel local manufacturing requirements, would have meant this process could have been completed well within the ITU deadline. In fact, set-top boxes probably wouldn’t have even been required in many cases as newer television sets would have had integrated digital tuners. Leadership from government in setting standards and then sticking to those standards would have shaved at least four years off the process.
And the local manufacturers that were supposed to benefit from this process? They’re in limbo because … actually I don’t know why they’re in limbo. I simply don’t know why the process of set-top box manufacturing hasn’t started. It seems that everything is finally in place, regulations approved, specifications of the boxes have been published, tenders for manufacture issued, subsidy system for poor households approved, and manufacturers appointed. (Actually it seems that everyone that applied for the manufacturing tender is going to get some of the action – which does seems like an ill-considered move, but that’s a diffrerent story…)
Twenty-six manufacturers have reportedly been appointed and none is currently producing anything because no orders have been placed. So, it seems government has forced local manufacturing requirements into the regulations, but is unable to actually get the local manufacturers to … well, manufacture.
If anyone is writing a case study about the unintended consequences of poor government policy and over-regulation, they’d be well advised to follow this story.
- Andrew Fraser is an independent marketing strategist with a focus on the South African IT, telecoms and consumer electronics industries
- Disclaimer: At the time that the DTT process started, the author was employed by a manufacturer of TV sets in South Africa, where he was involved in market planning for integrated digital TVs. But, as he points out, that was 10 years ago