Picture: 123RF/jacomo123
Picture: 123RF/jacomo123

The government does not have a timeline for when SA will officially switch off its analogue broadcast services in favour of modern digital platforms, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams tells the FM.

That means South Africans may, for at least another two years, pay on average R150 for 1GB of data.

The latest digital migration document from industry regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA, released in December, proposes an accelerated schedule to complete the process in 2021.

That is six years after the June 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television. And it is 10 years after the government’s own deadline to switch off the analogue network — in November 2011.

Migration would clear the radio frequency spectrum occupied by broadcasters to allow faster wireless mobile broadband services and other applications.

Ndabeni-Abrahams says one of the government’s challenges is the unavailability of set-top boxes (STBs), which will allow users of old TV sets to watch free-to-air channels after the switchover. Second, some households that qualify to receive subsidised STBs do not even have TVs to begin with.

Ndabeni-Abrahams says users found faults with the first batch of STBs, which warranted a review of the entire process.

Arthur Goldstuck, technology analyst and head of World Wide Worx, has been following the process for 12 years. In 2008 the government set itself a target to deliver 7-million STBs by 2011 to households that depend on social grants and with a monthly income of less than R3,200.

"Even then, there was little understanding of the complex requirements, and the government set itself up for failure," says Goldstuck. "However, we thought at the time it would be a matter of a five-or six-year delay, which would not have been regarded as a major failure, since it would have met the ITU deadline.

"As it happened, the lack of understanding of what was required, combined with a massively political agenda and flawed tender process, guaranteed that the failure would be far greater than just missing a deadline," he says. "It is clear that the government has failed the people of SA in ensuring a smooth transition and a reaping of the benefits of migration across numerous sectors."

So what actually needs to be done to complete the process?

The department of communications has to complete the rollout of STBs to at least 5-million homes.

"If the boxes have to be imported from China, so be it," says Goldstuck. "The cost and damage of the delay is far greater than the vague benefits of a transformation process that has already been a fiasco."

The rollout includes installation of the boxes and, where necessary, setting up of antennas — a massive undertaking requiring a huge amount of labour. "Handled correctly, it could be a great job creation process. So far, we see no evidence of it being handled correctly," Goldstuck says.

The process also requires public education and awareness programmes. "We had a small taste of those some years ago, but long before a single STB was available, so it was pretty useless," he says.

There needs to be a clear timeframe for dual illumination (analogue and digital running concurrently) followed by a partial switch-off, followed by full digital migration, says Goldstuck.

There are many technical requirements on this path, so it is not a straightforward process, and will take time.

But a firm timeline is something that the government cannot promise at this point.

"We don’t have the timeframes yet because we’re dependent on the manufacturers," says Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Her department will meet with STB manufacturers next month, to gauge their capacity.

And she says the government has opted not to tender for more STBs. "We’re subsidising householders [with] the voucher, which they will use to buy a box from retail shops. But for us to plan properly, we have to engage with the manufacturers and understand their pace."

The state also seems to have revised the number of households that need to receive these devices.

"We’ve reworked and relooked at the 5-million number," she says of the initial STB target. The government will roll out the existing stock of STBs to 1.5-million households. But it also factors in that owners of new digital TVs don’t need an STB, because they already have a built-in digital tuner. Most "smart" TVs with an internet connection have these capabilities.

"The rollout of STBs has been a disaster from the perspectives of policy, economics, broadcasting and business alike," says Goldstuck. "Right now we need a practical solution that does not bow down to political expediency, as has happened for the past 12 years."

Mobile operators have long argued that provision of new spectrum would reduce the cost of data as they would need to spend less money to build cellphone towers and expand their networks.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA executive for corporate affairs, says high-demand spectrum – or what is often referred to as the "digital dividend" – is in the 700MHz-800MHz band, which can only be allocated once the digital migration is complete.

This spectrum is called the "digital dividend" because it is a highly efficient carrier of 4G signal.

A Vodacom spokesperson tells the FM that having to build a 4G network using spectrum other than what is in the "digital dividend" means that "we have had to needlessly build significantly more towers. Unfortunately, this has increased input costs and curbed the pace at which data prices could have fallen in SA."

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