The lack of spectrum has hampered the rapid deployment of faster wireless network infrastructure in SA. Picture: REUTERS
The lack of spectrum has hampered the rapid deployment of faster wireless network infrastructure in SA. Picture: REUTERS

Sixteen years after making plans to migrate from analogue to digital, the department of communications is still struggling to implement the broadcasting digital migration policy, which has frustrated players in the telecommunications sector who are desperate for additional spectrum.

SA started planning for digital migration in 2004 and had set itself an initial deadline of 2011. The new deadline is 2021.

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, including for cellphones, 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, reduce the cost of data, and boost the broader economy.

SA already lags much of Africa on digital migration and missed the 2015 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) 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 migration process has been weighed down by many issues; not least the encryption squabbles and political instability as communications ministers were changed several times under former president Jacob Zuma's tenure.

In 2018, the department of communications confirmed that state-sponsored set-top boxes would not be encrypted. Set-top boxes are needed to decode the digital signal for television sets that do not have digital capabilities. Conditional access and encryption is crucial for pay-TV broadcasters, as it allows them to control who has access to their content.

Broadcaster, which challenged the nonencryption policy, had argued that encryption was needed in free-to-air set-top boxes to allow other broadcasters to compete with MultiChoice and challenge its monopoly on pay TV.

MultiChoice, which owns M-Net and DStv, stated previously that encrypted digital set-top boxes risked being expensive for the government and would disadvantage the poor.

Bickering over the issue delayed SA’s plans to migrate from analogue to digital.

Allegations, including a copy of minutes of a meeting held between MultiChoice and SABC executives in 2013, emerged in 2017, suggesting the pay-TV operator would proceed with its multimillion-rand deal with the public broadcaster to include the SABC News Channel on the DStv bouquet only if the government supported nonencryption.

The allegations were also tabled late in 2019 at the ongoing commission of inquiry looking into state capture.

Last week department of communications officials told MPs that progress towards finalising the digital migration process has been slow, primarily due to the “poor pace of household migration to digital platforms” and lack of funding. Out of about 4.7-million qualifying households, only 511 000 have been connected to the digital decoders.  

MPs were not impressed.

Boyce Maneli, who chairs parliament’s communications portfolio committee said: “The issue of inadequate funding to implement fully the programme is of serious concern, especially because everyone knows that the government does not have money.

“However, we would like to encourage the government to ensure speedy implementation as well as engaging the private sector as part of the social compact to leverage available resources.”

The committee called on the department to develop a timeline of milestones that need to be reached before the analogue switch off target of 2021, as set out by the cabinet.

Maneli said the timeline should be presented to the committee as well as the estimated budget to complete the entire migration programme.

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