In September, the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) signal was supposed to be turned on. This meant a three-year period would begin in which the existing analogue and new digital signal would be broadcast simultaneously: a process known as dual illumination. Instead the commercial launch of the signal took place in November, although a ‘soft launch’ has already taken place in the Northern Cape.
During the dual illumination, all South Africans who rely on the current free-to-air broadcasters for television access – namely SABC and e.tv – and who don’t have digital satellite television decoders will have to buy a set top box to unscramble the digital signal. If they don’t, they will be unable to receive television in future. By agreement with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the switch-off date for the analogue signal for many countries is 2015, although some countries have a switch-off date of 2020.
Many have called the South African migration process shambolic because of the long delays, but what they overlook is that the first countries to undertake migration often took up to a decade to complete the process. The government’s biggest mistake was to set unrealistic deadlines for the process in the first place. It did so presumably because it wanted to portray itself as an early adopter and to expedite the process of freeing up the much sought after spectrum currently occupied by broadcasters (known as the digital dividend). Precisely how much spectrum will be freed up remains unclear.
The switchover from analogue to digital television is a massive and expensive undertaking, but the government is convinced that the benefits will far exceed the costs. Apart from the freeing up of spectrum, broadcasters will also be able to offer many more channels on the same frequency, although there is still disagreement about how many channels can be made available per digital frequency (or multiplex).
The communications regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), maintains that each multiplex will be able to carry 21 standard definition (SD) channels or six high definition (HD) channels. However, broadcasters like e.tv maintain that Icasa is overestimating the capacity of the multiplexes. This lack of clarity on the basics makes it difficult for viewers to know what to expect out of the migration process.
Digital television could also allow for greater interactivity, and in that regard, the department of communications decided recently that the set top box specifications should also include a return path. This will allow viewers to send information via the set top box and interact with e-government services. They could possibly even access the internet, which potentially could turn the set top box into a gateway to the information society where viewers can both receive and impart information.
However, it is still not clear what the capacity of this return path will be. If it is too slow, then it will be unusable for all but the most basic of communication functions. But a fast connection may push the manufacturing costs up, making the set top box unaffordable for many households. While the government intends to provide subsidies for the poorest households, it is possible that these subsidies will be inadequate.
But perhaps the most serious imponderable is around the allocation of the multiplexes and the resulting benefits to viewers. In July this year, Icasa released new draft regulations, in view of the department’s adoption of the newer and more efficient DVB-T2 compression delivery standard, which increased the channel capacity available on the multiplexes. Before this, the department and Icasa had largely agreed that the existing broadcasters should be protected from competition for the duration of the dual illumination period, and offered two multiplexes to them.
Icasa then revised its regulations to take this new capacity into account, reassigning the second mobile multiplex to DTT. This third multiplex is to be offered to new commercial competitors: a proposal that has, unsurprisingly, been met with resistance from the existing broadcasters. Icasa has also proposed that it requires the existing broadcasters to broadcast a minimum percentage of original and local content on the new channels (known as the digital incentive channels). Both proposals are positive, and are more likely to lead to greater content diversity.
However, Icasa has proposed that just over 70% of the multiplexes will be set aside for commercial use compared to 3% for community use. This clearly makes nonsense of the policy requirement for three tiers of broadcasting. As a regulatory intervention implicitly designed to advance corporate interests and marketisation, if left unchanged, the regulations will have the effect of weakening public and community television even further.
Another proposal made by Icasa is for broadcasters to be allowed to broadcast in SD or HD formats. Broadcasters have long argued that they should be allowed to offer HD as they feel that it is the standard of the future. However, HD chews bandwidth, which limits the number of channels to be offered during dual illumination.
Commercial broadcasters may well opt for HD, even at the expense of offering more channels, as the high definition proposition will allow them to attract upper income brackets who already have access to HD-enabled sets and wish to improve picture quality. As these audiences are also likely to have access to a multitude of media, they will be less likely to be affected by fewer channel offerings.
However, Icasa’s opening up of the HD possibility may well make the digital transition harder to achieve. Countries undertaking digital migration often have to make tough trade-offs between allowing HD or emphasising multichannel offerings to encourage voluntary digital take-up.
South Africa faces the massive challenge of encouraging voluntary take-up in a relatively short space of time. If viewers are to be persuaded that buying set top boxes is a worthwhile outlay of money, there needs to be demonstrable benefits, which implies relevant multichannel offerings that speak to the country’s news, informational and entertainment needs and interests, on a mass scale.
If South Africa is to avoid viewer resistance, and a politically destabilising backlash a la e-tolling on the eve of switch-off, then it needs to prioritise multichannel offerings over and above HD. Decisions about these trade-offs should not be left to the discretion of the broadcasters, who should be required to show good cause for broadcasting in HD.
South Africa needs to pursue a digital transition that will ultimately benefit users. Yet a mere three years before the switch-off date, there are still a frighteningly large number of imponderables in the process.
The most serious one is how viewers are likely to respond when they are told to go out and buy the set top boxes or risk being cut off from free-to-air television entirely. Will they see tangible benefits in the form of greater content diversity, or simply more channels of wrestling and repeats? If the benefits aren’t obvious, then viewers are likely to vote with their purses and wallet and refuse to buy the set top box, putting the process at risk of grinding to a halt.
This scenario is very possible, given that the process so far has been government and producer-driven. A serious national conversation about what viewers want out of the process has not even begun. The main protagonists have taken decisions on behalf of viewers, who will only be engaged in a serious way once the really important decisions have already been taken. This lack of viewer involvement may well be the process’s undoing.
This story was first published in the November issue of The Media magazine.