At AfricaCom 2016, the largest annual tech and telco gathering on the continent that takes place annually in November, the question of DTT migration resounded in various talks and keynote discussions.
As Africa’s most developed economy, South Africa’s dismal failure to meet DTT deadlines is a sore point for stakeholders across the continent, who lambasted government’s apparent apathy towards, or lack of understanding of, the overriding benefits of DTT migration.
“There has been a short-sighted focus that the transition to digital broadcasting is about TV,” reckons DA MP Marian Shinn, the shadow minister of telecommunications and postal services. “There has been insufficient drive by government to understand that the real purpose is to free up the spectrum currently used by TV (mainly) to make wireless broadband internet accessible to the entire country,” adds Shinn, who has been actively campaigning for government to take a more proactive stance on the issue.
It’s a serious issue, considering South Africa’s current status. Ten years after the International Telecommunications Union held a World Radio-Communication Conference (WRC-06) resolution that all countries in Europe, Africa, Middle East and the Islamic Republic of Iran (region 1) migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting services by 17 June 2015 – and one year after the ITU deadline mandated analogue switch-off across most of the continent – South Africa is only just getting the ball rolling.
In February 2016, government finally officially launched DTT, with the commencement of “dual illumination” – the first step of the DTT process that will allow for a seamless transition between analogue and digital. And in October, five core towns in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) areas in the Northern Cape at Carnarvon in the Karoo completed the migration process, with the analogue signal switched off.
A positively painstaking process
Government is taking a positive stance on these moves. In October, “Cabinet welcomed the ministry of communications’ announcement of the first phase milestone towards switching off of the analogue transmitter”, notes Mishack Molakeng, spokesperson for the department of communications. It’s a step forward for sure, but a little too late, by any count. Because many aspects of the process, now seriously delayed, are still mired in controversy, not least of which being policy, regulation and litigation issues – some inter-governmental – that has the potential to derail any progress made.
“The single biggest challenge (to DTT migration) has been that citizen’s interests were put below the interests of the state, politics and vested commercial players’ interests,” says Thandi Smith, head of the media policy and regulation unit at Media Monitoring Africa and chairperson of the SOS Coalition, which strongly supports conditional access. “The impact of this led to numerous court cases which focused largely on issues relating to set top boxes (STBs), set top boxes control and whether to encrypt or non encrypt the set top boxes – in fact the issue remains the biggest single stumbling block to roll out, with the Constitutional Court case set to be heard in early 2017. The issue has further been hampered by instability and high turnover of key personnel including key commercial players and the minister of communications.”
Despite the obvious negative impact ongoing litigation has and will have on the process, the department of communications is bullish about its achievements, claiming to be fast-tracking migration. Says Molakeng, “It is imperative to note that the project was handed over to the ministry of communications on 30 January 2015 and, three months later, on 18 March 2015, the policy was gazetted. The first South African citizen received a subsidised set-top box in Keimoes on 17 December 2015. All this happened within a nine-month period.”
Communications minister Faith Muthambi has now set 2018 as the target date for complete migration, despite Shinn’s call for a complete review of a process she describes as “unaffordable, inefficient and technologically stale”.
In the meantime, private players like China’s pay-TV provider StarTimes and MultiChoice’s GOtv are establishing themselves as the continent’s leaders in fast-tracking digital migration efforts – already looking at filling the next big gap full digital broadcasting will expose: that of providing comprehensive content.
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Though certainly historic, the SKA region switchover in October highlights government’s focus on damage control. The Northern Cape migration paves the way for the successful operation of the SKA project – the international radio telescope that South Africa is co-hosting with Australia.
Laudable though it may be, SKA region migration also highlights the fact that SA misses another pertinent deadline: SADC’s revised December 2016 agreement. But the communications ministry brushes this off.
“It is important to note that the SADC agreement was not binding. However, individual SADC member states were encouraged to strive to fast-track the migration process towards switch off … member states that are not in the position to meet the proposed date will engage in bilateral engagements aimed at minimising mutual spectrum interference during the transition,” says Molakeng.
With installations in four key provinces – Limpopo, Free State, Mpumalanga, and Northern Cape – underway, government is also embarking on a door to door registrations campaign in order to fast-track the uptake of the STBs in these areas.
“We are now witnessing an increasing number of registrations, and we are happy with the progress made up to now,” adds Molakeng, who refuses to be drawn into the question of whether 2018 is a realistic and achievable new deadline for full migration – or what solutions the ministry has in place to counter any setbacks.
Further setbacks are almost an inevitability, reckons Shinn, pointing out that all progress in the digital rollover hangs in the balance, pending the Constitutional Court’s ruling, in February, on Muthambi’s appeal on the earlier judgment on her policy. “Whatever the outcome, the tender process for the production of the STBs was flawed so it will need to be re-done. The minister must also act on the irregularities in the procurement process to hold relevant people accountable.”
Shinn is pushing for a complete review of the DTT migration programme to determine whether, in its current format, it is the best route to achieve to outcomes. “I believe that technology has moved on, there is less money for the transition – and next year’s budget is going to be more stringent than this year’s. The programme cannot be ‘business as usual’. There has to be political will to understand that in its current format and financial climate the current model cannot work.”
What’s required, says Smith, is clear citizen-oriented policy. “The next step forward would be to ensure the set-top boxes issue is resolved as quickly as possible and that we then focus on putting mechanisms into place that will protect the viability and relevance of DTT and free-to-air services. The challenge however will be the uptake of the set-top boxes, the cost of the set-top boxes as well as exciting fresh content for the new channels.”
One factor that may eat into the issue of time and timing is that of cost. Most African countries have balked at having to foot the bill for the digital transition. And South Africa’s policy, regulation and legislative lapses have had a massively adverse effect, which will impact heavily on the rollover process. In September, Muthambi told parliament that, “the DTT project is being rolled out despite minor challenges”… notably, that “relate to lack of funding for a public awareness campaign, dual illumination and the establishment of a contact centre”.
Apart from the R305 million cost of manufacturing set-top boxes that may well be ruled ineffective come February, there’s the cost to Sentech, the state-owned broadcasting signal distributor that met its mandate of installing the necessary infrastructure and logistics to enable the digital rollout. The equipment, worth R1 billion, is already becoming obsolete, says Shinn, and the cost of keeping both analogue and digital transmission systems operating is threatening Sentech’s sustainability.
“Last fiscal this dual illumination cost R107 million, and it received only R75 million. This year the cost is R160 million. As this was not budgeted for by the department of communications – custodians of the digital migration project – the department of telecommunications and postal services (DTPS) stepped up to the plate with R100 million.
The irony is that, while DTT migration was always going to cost government and industry stakeholders, the benefits would pay off in a continental production boom that would generate various sustainable media and broadcasting industries.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, estimated switchover costs at half a billion US dollars, and the government offset these by entering into a wide-ranging partnership with StarTimes. Some European countries financed the costs by selling the additional spectrum space freed up by DTT migration to 4G mobile networks.
Let’s hope Shinn gets her way and 2017 sees government switching on to a whole new progressive approach to opening up the digital spectrum.
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