Cape Town – South African TV viewers will now likely have to provide a SABC TV licence to get an expensive set-top box (STB) required for digital terrestrial television (DTT) – even the poorest of the poor who won't get one of the 5 million free STBs government hand-outs without a valid licence.
It raises serious questions over how the government and broadcasters like the SABC want to complete the country's long-delayed switch-over from analogue to DTT – a process known as digital migration – in the department of communication's planned 18 to 24 months timeline once DTT is commercially launched if millions of TV households can't get a STB.
Millions of South African TV households, representing many more millions of viewers, don't have a valid licence for their TV sets and are not paying for an annual SABC TV licence.
It means that they will be locked out and barred from getting a STB and will eventually see their TV signals cut off and disappear once broadcasters like the SABC, e.tv and community TV stations switch off their analogue signals.
"We are looking at saying a television licence may well be required [for a STB]," said Solly Mokoetle, South Africa's head of the DTT programme.
He was a panelist at The New Age breakfast briefing on DTT which was held on Monday morning in Sandton.
While South Africa embarrassingly missed the 17 June international agreed to deadline to have completed the switch to DTT due to more than a decade of government ineptitude, Mokoetle said on Monday that the qualifying criteria to get a free STB from the government – distributed through the South African Post Office – is at this point still being worked out.
Prove you’re poor to get a decoder
According to the government's proposed DTT switch plans South Africa's poorest will first have to provide "proof" that they're poor.
Only households who can prove that they're "poor enough", something which will be a humiliating experience according to critics of the plan, will be able to get one of the 5 million STBs for free – if they have a SABC TV licence.
The STBs will cost other TV households around R700 to R800, while a new TV antenna for DTT at an additional cost will also be required in a lot of cases just so that people can continue watching the digitally transmitted version of the TV channels they've had before, as well as some new ones.
"We are still in the process of consulting to finalise the nitty-gritty details of this qualifying criteria. It should be a certain income level in a household. The cabinet policy is based on funding the indigent," said Mokoetle.
"Does that [requirement of a SABC TV licence] discriminate against more of our people or not? The point however is that a television licence is a law in South Africa. So it is a requirement [for a STB]. Now, we will be looking at all of these factors as we move towards the distribution point."
Nobody on the panel could answer moderator Peter Ndoro's question of how the 5 million poor TV households receiving a free government STB will be prevented from selling that asset to get the money.
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