The Media Yearbook, the only one of its kind in Africa, offers an important and independent overview of the media industry in 2015 as well as giving important insight and perspective into global trends and forecasting for 2016. Independent media consultant, Dimitri Martinis looks at the broadcasting regulatory environment.
The year 2015 will be remembered as the year of the digital broadcasting non-event in South Africa and a number of countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. These countries had agreed to a co-ordinated digital broadcasting switch over date of 17 June 2015.
The reason for the switch over was to free up valuable radio frequency spectrum currently used by television broadcasters. This spectrum that is released, called the “digital dividend”, can be used for a number of different and innovative communications services, such as mobile broadband and enhanced interactive broadcasting services.
The policy and regulatory environment in 2015 has been characterised by much uncertainty. In 2013 the Department of Communications embarked on an “overarching” policy review process that had been formally announced in May 2011. By November 2015 the government had only managed to complete the first phase of its ICT policy review. So from a policy perspective, the communications sector has been in a state of limbo in many respects, with incumbent players enjoying a virtual monopoly and new players battling to break into the sector, despite government pronouncements about the lack of competition and of transformation in the sector.
The television landscape in South Africa sadly remained unchanged during 2015 with one of only three new subscription TV licences issued by Icasa to Walking on Water, an applicant for one of the five licences advertised by Icasa in 2006. That process produced only one licensed subscription broadcaster, On Digital Media, which launched Top TV to much fanfare in 2010 and which is now in business rescue and was recently acquired by Chinese Broadcaster Startimes and re-launched as STARSAT.
The remaining licences granted by Icasa were stillborn, with e.tv sister company E-Sat “returning” the licence to Icasa, and Telkom Media/Super 5 Media never launching despite setting up operations and reportedly spending hundreds of millions in the process.
The more recent Invitation to Apply (ITA) from Icasa for a second round of subscription TV licences did not fare any better. Of the five licences “granted” but not “issued” (a regulatory anomaly if ever there was one) only Siyaya TV and Close TV have been issued licences, but nobody knows why and what the decision is regarding the other three because Icasa has failed to publish its decision and reasons for decisions and appears unlikely to do so in 2015. Neither Siyaya TV, nor Close TV have announced any launch plans.
In the Video-on-Demand space MultiChoice announced the launch of ShowMax, into a market of five players and just months after the withdrawal from the market of Altech’s Node and the closure of two others.
ICT policy to the rescue?
The ICT Policy Review Panel was appointed in 2013 to drive this policy review process, and to date has produced a Framing Paper, a Green Paper and a final Recommendations Report (March 2015). Lots of paper and very little by way of concrete policy. After three years in the making, the policy process still needs to go through the publication of a White Paper, meaning the formal policy of government may only emerge in a few years time, and only then will new laws, regulations and further policies have to be enacted to give effect to this policy review. Problem is, three years later, we have a plethora of policy proposals that we can be proud of, but still no movement in critical areas.
The departments of Communications (DOC) and of telecommunications and postal services (DTPS) are now separately developing new policy or reviewing existing policies, laws and regulations relating to broadcasting. This lack of policy coordination has been roundly criticised as duplicating effort, as wasteful expenditure, but most notably for flying in the face of convergence. Industry lobby groups, and civil society organisations have called for the integration of the two departments as a first step to addressing issues of convergence and digitalisation. Icasa meanwhile has conducted reviews of its local content regulations for radio and television, but as with the spectrum policy it cannot finalise these until the ICT Policy Review is complete.
So as deadlines for switching on digital and switching off analogue flew by like discarded plastic shopping bags, the policy-makers, legislators and regulators stood by, arms crossed, looking on bewildered at the unfolding events. Lacking a clear and coherent policy framework, and a predictable regulatory regime to provide certainty to citizens and consumers alike, things were not looking as good as the spin-doctors would have us believe.
So was it all doom and gloom for SA television in 2015?
If you ask any independent producer whether they had received a significant commission from the public broadcaster, you are bound to be greeted with a snarl, and YES would be the answer. There were no significant new commissions of TV dramas, cutting edge documentaries, quality science, technology, arts and culture programming, only spending cuts, more austerity and lower per-minute spend on local programming content. MultiChoice and e.tv picked up some of the slack with new content and channels on DStv leading the way.
No, would be the reply from government spin doctors who hype up the launch of one computer laboratory at one rural school, or the switch on of a low power transmitter in a remote part of the country as if these heralded the digital revolution.
No, would be the reply from any lawyer or consultant, who had a flood of work, helping clients navigate the murky waters of government policy and regulation, and challenging unfair and irrational administrative decisions in court. No, they would say if you ask anyone of a new breed of digital entrepreneurs and content creators working with disruptive technologies such as YouTube, that now have traditional linear TV broadcasters mimicking them just to remain relevant and engaged with younger audiences.
The long awaited June 2015 switch over date came and went without registering even a blip on the radar screens of most South African marketing and communications professionals. The failure to meet the switch over date was dismissed by arrogant politicians as merely a delay and self-created urgency brought on by broadcasters themselves.
Why Go Digital and why the digital switch over?
Having prepared for a coordinated switch-off of the analogue broadcasting signal across region one for almost 15 years, South African broadcasters and politicians are still involved in a protracted legal battle (e.tv having won the right to take its case to the Supreme Court) over control of a basic Set-Top-Box (STB) device. This device will allow viewers to continue receiving television broadcasts when the analogue transmissions come to an end and digital only transmissions take over. Free-to-air television and radio broadcasts are the only source of news, information and entertainment for the majority of South Africans, and it is therefore critical that the digital switch over does not widen the digital divide.
So what is this radio frequency spectrum that we cannot see, but which is now like the new gold, generating a gold rush all of its own? It’s useful to think of it as any other natural resource, such as land, that needs to be managed in the interest of the public to gain maximum value from it in the digital era. And just like different parts of the land have different uses depending on their features (farming, conservation, industrial, human settlements etc.), so too different parts of the frequency spectrum are better suited to different technologies (TV, radio, W-Fi, microwave, remote controls etc.).
As a result of the increasing convergence of technology, the traditional copper telephone line has become a connection to the Internet, using ADSL technology, and transforming the plain old telephone that was limited to making and receiving voice calls into a link to the information superhighway. The rapid roll-out of fibre across the country over the past two years now means that traditional over the air television broadcasters are joined by an increasing number of content delivery platforms, competing for limited viewer time and attention.
And it is digital technology that is making it possible to broadcast content over the airwaves in a more efficient manner. So if we use the analogy of the information super highway, digital broadcasting technology makes it possible to use the same highway infrastructure to move more vehicles and for each vehicle to deliver more content. So this will mean that in future up to twenty television channels will be delivered on the same spectrum as one channel is today. So that means more free-to-air and subscription television channels available to the South African public.
The competition for viewers and for consumer attention now spans radio (analogue and digital), television, and over-the-top content services (video-on-demand, online streaming of traditional TV channels, podcast downloads and other content delivery platforms.)
DTT to the rescue?
The commercial launch of Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) is going to have to be carefully coordinated to ensure that consumers are not left without access to television. The current government policy is that DTT will be the primary means of reception for most citizens, with satellite Direct-to-Home (DTH) available throughout the country. The state will subsidise five million of the over 12 million TV households with either DTT or DTH reception equipment. All the channels on the DTT platform should also be available via DTH to those who fall outside the DTT network coverage area. Over The Top (OTT) services will continue to become available as broadband, and especially mobile broadband is rolled out over the next few years.
As at November 2015, DTT information campaigns had been to only three parts of the country, and the Department of Communications has undertaken a number of small scale “proof of concept” DTT launches and viewer registration pilot exercises to register those who will be receiving the STB subsidy. The results of the registration process are disappointing to say the least. Of a potential five million households, there were less than 5 000 reported registrations by November 2015.
The Universal Service And Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) recently awarded tenders for the manufacture of the subsidised STBs and even this project is mired in controversy with the communications minister publicly questioning the tender process, and Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications raising doubts about the government’s DTT plans and lack of budget to finance the proposed subsidy scheme.
The delays in effecting the switch over have been attributed to a number of reasons, not least of which is a policy vacuum, political instability due to maladministration and regulatory uncertainty, or to on-going legal challenges over perceived policy failures. This situation has made it impossible to carry out any effective planning and coordination with regards to the digital switch over, putting the already delayed migration process further at risk, and further delaying the release of the digital dividend.
Competition to the rescue?
The Icasa DTT Competition and Diversity regulations introduced a third multiplex (Mux 3), ostensibly to introduce competition and diversity in television broadcasting market, Icasa invited applications for spectrum on Mux 3, by 30 November 2015. According to technical reports, the final transmission parameters adopted by broadcasters, will determine how much capacity can be allocated to channels on the multiplex (the higher data throughput (33Mb/sec) of DVB-T2 means that any new commercial free-to-air or subscription broadcasters will be limited to only a handful of channels (some HD and some SD).
So looking forward to 2016 we are likely to see some movement on the launch of communications and mass media campaigns to inform the public about DTT, but until the legal battle over STB control has been resolved DTT as a platform could land up playing catch up to satellite and mobile platforms.
This story was first published in The Media Yearbook, an annual title of Wag the Dog Publishers.
 Collectively these countries make up Region 1 of the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU)
 The is the radio frequency spectrum that is released after the migration from analogue to digital, and after the final “re-stacking” exercise, or the digital to digital migration. The spectrum that is freed up in this way is then available for reassignment to a host of electronic communications and broadcasting services.
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