The recent turmoil at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, and subsequent dissolution of its board after a very public fallout between it, individual board members and the communications minister has led to questions about the capability of the administration in overseeing one of biggest challenges it will ever face: the migration to digital terrestrial television (DTT).
In a statement, chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications (PPCC), Eric Kholwane, said the committee was concerned and dismayed at the “untenable situation currently presiding over the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)”.
“The public broadcaster cannot afford any form of instability, especially at the time when the country will be migrating from analogue to digital,” he says.
With an interim board in place, they will still need to be brought up to speed on the state of readiness of this massive migration. Then, there is uncertainty over just who is the head of operations meant to oversee DTT at the SABC.
With this in mind, it’s highly unlikely South Africa will make the 2015 deadline. After all, the tender for set-top boxes (STBs) hasn’t even been issued, let alone a date set for DTT ‘switch on’ to ending dual illumination, effectively the ‘switch off’ date for analogue transmission.
The PPCC was so busy putting out fires that flared between Communications Minister Dina Pule and the board, and the Department of Communications (DoC) so embroiled in the fight, that neither managed to answer key questions from The Media on the state of play where DTT is concerned, despite repeated requests for illumination from the state.
But opposition political parties and civil society are keeping tabs on the process, and they agree that while great strides have been made, there’s a long and rocky road ahead before South Africans fully embrace DTT.
“My impression from public hearings we had at Parliament at the end of last year is that everyone is ready except for where government decision-making is involved,” says Marian Shinn, the Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister of communications. “e.tv, M-Net and SABC can switch to digital broadcasting, but delays have played havoc with their acquisition of digital content and business plans regarding advertising, the launch, etcetera. Sentech claims to be making good progress in converting transmitters and believes it will have most of the country covered by 2015,” she says.
What does the communications minister say? At the launch of the DoC’s strategic plan in parliament in March, Pule said the department does “acknowledge current challenges affecting specific facets of the broadcast digital migration (BDM) value chain which it is addressing. However, over the short to medium term, priority will be given to, among others, expanding national DTT and satellite coverage, allocations of subsidised STBs, STB installer training as well as provision of technical user-support”.
Kate Skinner, acting co-ordinator for the SOS ‘Save our SABC’ Coalition, a civil society grouping tasked with overseeing all things SABC, says there have been significant delays in progress. “The latest delays were linked to a court case initiated by e.tv. e.tv was unhappy about the fact that the minister was insisting that Sentech (which provides signal distribution services for most of the country’s broadcasters) be in charge of issues of STB control. e.tv won their court case.
“Initially the minster was going to take this case on appeal but she has now decided not to do this. This is a good thing because there would have been even further delays,” Skinner says. “The problem is that this court case has stalled the manufacturing process of STBs. This has meant that it has been impossible for government to announce a digital switch-on date.”
Her colleague, the SOS Coalition’s campaign organiser, Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi, explains that Sentech has “rolled out a significant amount of the extensive signal distribution network. More than 70% of population coverage, including those areas in the Northern Cape that will require DTH satellite signal because of the potential interference the terrestrial signal transmission might have with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.
“All broadcasters are ready to [broadcast], and are already broadcasting, on the digital network. Any DVB-T2 STB available on the market now (and there are many) will be able to decode the unencrypted free-to-air (FTA) channel signals for TV and computers,” he says.
Regulations governing broadcast migration are the purview of the regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa). Regulations were passed last year in December, after five years in the making, and comment closed in March. “They focused on issues linked to the carving up of the first two multiplexes,” says Skinner. “At the end of last year a new set of regulations was released looking at competition and diversity issues. These regulations were focused in particular on ways to carve up a third multiplex.”
She says one of the main reasons for the delay in finalising regulations was that “the incumbents (SABC, e.tv and M-Net) were opposed to new broadcasters being introduced during the dual illumination period (when analogue and digital will both be in play). The SOS Coalition and others have been pushing for new broadcasters to be introduced to ensure a greater diversity of voices,” she says.
Phamodi says Icasa took some time to make the final decision on whether to make the third multiplex available to broadcasting at all. “Once this was done, it really was a scramble over who would get it. Following the submissions on the full set of regulations last year, Icasa rightly observed that there was a great deal of contestation of who would get what share of the spectrum pie. A key issue, here, was whether community broadcasters and new entrants had been given enough space to create a vibrant and diverse enough broadcasting environment, which – with much lobbying and arguing from civil society’s side – it recognised there wasn’t. So multiplex three has essentially been cordoned off exclusively for new entrants and community broadcasters along this ratio: 40% subscription, 40% FTA and 20% community.”
So, are we on schedule for migration in 2015? “No, far from it,” says Phamodi. “It took the UK (a smaller country, with higher population density, more money, more expertise, a trusted public broadcaster with a wider and higher quality range of channel offerings to incentivise take-up) 10 years to prepare for and an additional five years to complete the migration process. South Africa is none of those things and wants to complete this migration in less than three years? Unlikely.”
Shinn’s response is: “Technically, probably yes. We’ll be able to send out signals but whether there’ll be any content or devices through which to receive the signals is debatable. If we imported the STBs and set private enterprise to roll them out we’d probably have many viewers watching digital TV by then.”
Adding to the challenge, says Shinn, is the “DoC’s dithering and ministerial interference in a process she doesn’t understand – except that there’s potential for buddies to make money out of the supply chain”.
Phamodi says the DoC has to take charge of the project to “ensure that every key stakeholder is playing their part, deadlines aren’t missed, and enough funding and adequate oversight over its expenditure is directed into making the project a success”.
The problem, though, says Skinner, is that there has been so much instability at the DoC. “Since 2008, we have had five ministers! Also, the present minister is under pressure due to corruption allegations. She may be shifted from her portfolio leading to still more instability. It is difficult to drive a vision with so many stakeholders without strong leadership from the DoC. The department needs to build up strong internal capacity to run this process and it seems this hasn’t happened. Also, it needs to work more effectively with stakeholders. There has been a lot of animosity,” she says.
And then there are those STBs, the manufacturing of which, says Shinn, is a major stumbling block to the successful rollout of DTT. “Without user access – via STBs – and acceptance, digital broadcasting is a non-starter. Government intervention and mishandling the STB strategy has been flawed from inception. There is a misguided belief that local manufacture will grow thousands of jobs. It may grow a few hundred to swell the ranks of those local assemblers who currently build STBs from imported components for export to the rest of Africa and elsewhere.
“The job growth will come in installation and support, which would need to be in place even if we imported them. And none of this is in place now, because there is nothing to install and no one can say for certainty when there will be.”