Nomvula Mokonyane. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE
Nomvula Mokonyane. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE

The government on Thursday said it would no longer be involved in the procurement and installation of set-top devices for digital technology.

Communications minister Nomvula Mokonyane said the government would no longer be involved in the procurement, warehousing, transportation and installation of set-top boxes.

Set-top boxes, which will be required when digital migration occurs, are needed to decode the digital signal for television sets that do not have digital capabilities.

The government had initially committed to supply more than 5-million subsidised set-top boxes to low-income TV-owning households. However, the procurement process has been hampered by legal battles and corruption allegations.

The government has said that fewer set-top boxes could be required because of technological advancements that have resulted in many more households using TVs with digital capabilities.

“Cabinet approved a revised delivery model on implementation of the broadcast digital migration project. The model adopts a market/retail-driven approach through collaboration and partnerships with the private sector and industry,” Mokonyane said during Thursday’s post-cabinet briefing.

“With this approach, government will no longer be involved in the procurement of set-top boxes, warehousing, transportation and installation of devices.”

The move will save the government millions of rand and also boost local industry, which will be prioritised, the minister said.

“This provides South Africa with headway towards the completion of the project in a manner that is inclusive, affordable and efficient, and that reduces risk to government. This will push digital viewership migration to the 85% threshold and beyond, towards switching off all analogue broadcasts.”

SA already lags much of Africa on digital migration and missed the 2015 International Telecommunications Union deadline to switch its signal to digital. This means the union no longer protects SA’s analogue signal and people living in border areas could experience signal interruptions.

The delay in the migration from analogue to digital broadcasting has frustrated many players in the information and communications technology sector who are desperate for additional spectrum. Digital migration is crucial for freeing up broadband spectrum, which will boost connectivity. Spectrum, often referred to as the lifeblood of the wireless industry, refers to the radio signals set aside to carry data over the air, including for mobile phones, TV and global positioning systems (GPS).

This is a limited resource largely controlled by the government. The release of additional spectrum will diversify and boost competition in the telecommunications sector and reduce the cost of data.

The government now hopes to finalise the migration process by the end of the 2019-20 financial year.

Mokonyane said the cabinet welcomed the settlement agreement reached in the matter involving the invitation to apply for the allocation of high-demand spectrum. In September, the department of telecommunications and postal services and the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) reached an out-of-court settlement regarding the future allocation of high-demand spectrum.

“This provides policy certainty in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector,” said Mokonyane.

As part of an auction in 2016, Icasa invited applications for 700MHz, 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum licences to boost the roll-out of faster broadband. However, telecommunications and postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele approached the courts to challenge the auction, arguing that the government’s policy on spectrum was yet to be finalised and that such an auction would only benefit the big operators.

After years of uncertainty, the department and Icasa agreed to co-operate on the issue. The agreement between Icasa and the department was in line with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call to “initiate the process for the allocation of high-demand radio spectrum to enable licensing” as part of the economic stimulus and economic recovery plan.

“In terms of the settlement agreement, Icasa will withdraw the [invitation to apply] and the minister will also withdraw the legal challenge,” the department said.​