The country’s move to digital TV has been plagued for years by delays and bad decisions. It’s tempting to call it a comedy of errors, except this isn’t funny. The delays could cost SA dearly, particularly as vast chunks of valuable spectrum being used by broadcasters needs to be freed up so telecoms companies can begin rolling out next-generation broadband networks, including into underserviced and rural areas.
According to deadlines set down by former communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, SA was meant to have completed migration to digital TV by last year already. It’s now looking possible that the country won’t have completed the process by June 2015, the deadline set down by the International Telecommunication Union.
Even the switch-on of commercial digital services, heralding a period of “dual-illumination”, where both analogue and digital services will coexist for a period, looks unlikely to happen in September, the new deadline suggested by the current minister, Dina Pule.
A litany of errors and poor policy decisions have delayed the process to the extent that many other African countries now look certain to beat SA to full digital migration. Not least was the decision to entertain a change in the digital standard the country should adopt. A year was wasted as policy makers considered ditching the European standard SA had chosen in favour of a Japanese-Brazilian solution. After a change in directors-general and ministers, SA eventually returned to the European standard, albeit the improved, second generation thereof.
Migrating to digital will bring myriad benefits to SA television viewers. Because it is more “spectrally efficient” — it makes more efficient use of radio frequency spectrum — it will allow for the introduction of new channels and new competitors in terrestrial television broadcasting, which has changed little in the past decade.
But it’s not in broadcasting where the real economic benefits will flow for SA. Although it’s great to have increased media diversity and more competition in the sector, the most important outcome of digital migration is that spectrum used for analogue services will be freed up. Known as the “digital dividend”, this significant chunk of frequency below 850MHz will become available for broadband.
The properties of spectrum in this band make it ideally suited for building more cost-effective broadband networks, especially outside the dense urban areas. It is the single most important technological development if SA is ever to bridge the so-called “digital divide” between the connected and the unconnected and, if managed properly, will get millions of South Africans online properly for the first time.
That’s why further delays in digital migration cannot be countenanced and why it’s concerning that in last week’s draft regulations the Independent Communications Authority of SA warned that it had to prepare to meet any “future contingencies, including the possibility that analogue switch-off may not take place in 2015 as envisaged in the ministerial policy”. That would be a disaster; 2015 is already leaving things very late.
Then there’s the controversial set-top box subsidy. Government’s attempt to try and nurture a local set-top box manufacturing industry doesn’t make much sense. It wants millions of these boxes, the ones it will subsidise for poor households to unscramble digital signals, to be built locally. But this amounts to a subsidy paid for by industry and/or taxpayers to try and foster an industry that will almost certainly never be able to compete with Chinese factories.
It would be better to import cheap boxes, speed up migration, and get onto the business of what will really benefit the country, namely cheap and ubiquitous broadband. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral; this column is also published in Financial Mail
- Read more columns by McLeod