Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Has telecoms regulator Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) finally woken from its slumber? News that it plans to (temporarily) assign radio frequency spectrum to mobile operators and others, to give them extra firepower to tackle Covid-19, suggests SA may finally speed up digital migration.

The migration from analogue to digital broadcast services has been looming for 15 years, and SA missed an international deadline to carry out the switch by 2015. Icasa now expects to complete the process in 2021, though there are a number of hurdles to clear before that can happen.

In January communications & digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said one of the factors holding the government back related to the availability of set-top boxes (STBs), which will allow users of old TV sets to watch free-to-air channels after the switchover.

Ndabeni-Abrahams told the FM, in an interview before she was suspended by the president for violating the rules of the Covid-19 lockdown, that some progress had been made.

Her department recently met STB manufacturers to find out how many could be produced a month, at what cost, and who would install them.

"We did that, and we were very happy. Actually the industry was welcoming and looking forward to working with us," Ndabeni-Abrahams said. Standards have been finalised with the SA Bureau of Standards and were gazetted last month. "We’re in the process of ensuring that the project sponsor, the [government-owned] Universal Service & Access Agency of SA (Usaasa), establishes a project management office [for it]."

Much has changed since early talk about digital migration took place. The government now has to factor in that owners of new digital TVs don’t need an STB at all, because they already have a built-in digital tuner. Most "smart" TVs with an internet connection have these capabilities.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said the department will be targeting STBs for 3.2-million households — fewer than the 5-million that was initially suggested.

And because social distancing measures have caused schools to shut, a programme designed to support education will prioritise homes with Grade 12 pupils.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said schools and broadcaster SABC have initiated digital learning programmes for learners to continue with their education remotely, but that the lockdown is getting in the way. This sounds like a poor excuse, however, since the lockdown is exactly the reason why the learners need remote education.

On the other hand, can the lockdown be the unwitting enabler of a faster digital migration process? Last week, Icasa allocated additional spectrum (which relates to the radio frequencies on which data and information are carried) to MTN, Telkom, Vodacom, rain and Liquid Telecom. The extra spectrum will be available until November.

Mobile operators have long argued that access to spectrum, which is used by analogue TV broadcasts, will help reduce the cost of mobile data in SA because it will allow the companies to cover a wider geographic area with existing towers while carrying more data traffic.

The sudden new allocation is so firms can cater for the surge in demand from people working remotely during the nationwide lockdown.

However, Ndabeni-Abrahams admits that the slow pace of digital migration — which is the responsibility of her department — was one of the factors that led to Moody’s downgrading SA to junk status recently.

Icasa made the following spectrum bands available for temporary assignment: 700MHz, 800MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz and 3,500MHz.

Low-frequency bands below 1,000MHz tend to cover a wide area, whereas higher-frequency bands are better for carrying larger amounts of data traffic or capacity.

There was much demand for the 700MHz and 800MHz bands, but the regulator said the challenge is that television broadcasters still occupy this spectrum.

Ndabeni-Abrahams also wants to reconfigure the entities that fall under her department completely. For example, Sentech, which provides broadcast transmission services to all SABC radio and television stations, and telecom networking player Broadband Infraco, together with certain components from the State Information Technology Agency, "will be clubbed [together] under the state infrastructure company".

Usaasa, which is in charge of the country’s digital migration, will be done away with completely, the minister says. Some services, such as broadband provision by Usaasa, will be moved to the infrastructure company, while digital migration is to be fast-tracked.

But will this speed up digital migration, or will the plan to consolidate state enterprises only slow it down? At this point, that is unclear. Until now, Ndabeni-Abrahams’s department has moved far too slowly. Perhaps Covid-19 has lit the fuse.

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