Government should mandate a return path for Internet access in the tender it will issue soon for the digital television set-top boxes it will subsidise for millions of poorer South Africans as the country moves in the next few years from analogue to digital broadcasting technology, says an industry lobby group.
This would provide basic Web browsing and e-mail functionality for some of SA’s poorest people (if they can afford the bandwidth), the SA Communications Forum (SACF) will say at a press conference on Friday morning in Midrand. But it’s far from clear if this is the right approach to get people online.
The SACF argues that including a return path — using wireless or fixed connectivity — would provide much-needed Internet access for those who otherwise may end up remaining offline for years to come.
The department of communications is understood to be opposed to including a return path in the design requirements in the soon-to-be-published request for proposal (RFP) it will issue to manufacturers that want to build the subsidised boxes.
Consumers require digital decoders in order to continue receiving terrestrial television broadcasts when analogue signals are switched off, which must happen by no later than mid-2015.
One of the problems with a return-path approach is that it remains unclear how consumers would actually make use of the Internet or e-mail functionality such an approach could provide. While contemporary TVs include Internet browsers and support for connectivity, most subsidised set-top boxes will be connected to basic, cathode-ray tube TVs. It’s not clear if these are really suitable for Web browsing.
The SACF says making a return path a requirement in the government tender will increase the cost of each device only marginally — by about R40/unit — but will the poorest of the poor shell out for expensive data access? Industry experts suggest that 3G connectivity is the most likely option and that mobile operators are also, therefore, pushing for 3G modems to be included in boxes.
There is, however, a compelling argument for keeping the decoders as simple and cheap as possible, not only because millions of consumers without digital TVs will have to fork out for them, but also because of the millions of boxes that will have to be subsidised by government. Even an additional R40 means millions in additional expenditure for an already-stretched national fiscus.
Adding a return path to the set-top boxes won’t only add cost. It will also increase complexity, meaning possible delays to awarding contracts to manufacturers and to the roll-out phase. The SACF says it won’t lead to delays, but industry insiders that we spoke to this week aren’t convinced.
Added complexity also means the need for support systems and the mind boggles at the potential scale of a call centre designed to deal with queries.
The set-top boxes’ software would also need to be able to switch between decoder and Internet protocol (IP) mode, as the two can’t run simultaneously, technical experts told us this week.
Aside from the complexity involved, 3G is not widespread in outlying areas, meaning consumers would have to connect via Edge or — gasp, horror — the virtually unusable GPRS.
Even if 3G were a viable option for providing connectivity, there remains the problem of the TVs themselves. Most older TVs have an aspect ratio of 4:3 (as opposed to the 16:9 common on contemporary displays). This would mean the set-top box would need to be able to convert websites and other online content in such a manner as to make it suitable for low-resolution, 4:3 screens.
With the migration to digital broadcasting deadline set in stone, SA can ill afford further delays to the process. With the regulations surrounding digital broadcasting still to be finalised, and the fact that even once the preferred manufacturer is chosen that actually rolling out the units won’t happen for a further six to nine months at best, return-path functionality looks like a noble but ultimately flawed idea.
With the cost of smartphones and tablets plummeting, surely these devices will ensure the same outcome for poorer communities in the next few years, without the need for a complex set-top box that could hold back the already long-delayed march to full digital migration? — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media
- Craig Wilson is senior journalist at TechCentral