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Missed digital TV deadline ‘not a train smash’

2015-07-13 22:00

Cape Town – South Africa which missed the internationally agreed to deadline of 17 June 2015 to complete the switch from analogue to digital TV transmission "is not a train smash", says Solly Mokoetle, the head of the country's DTT programme.

South Africa is years behind schedule for digital TV and missed the agreed to deadline of 17 June of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to complete the commercial switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT) - a process which takes around 5 years.

South Africa no longer has the protection of the ITU when it comes to things like signal interference. The multiple expensive ongoing DTT delays have hampered South Africa's release of much needed spectrum and continue to negatively impact growth and development in South Africa's TV broadcasting and broadband industries.

Despite several false starts and constantly moved announced dates by the department of communications over the past decade, South Africa has not even started the commercial switch-on period, which will take a few years to get to the stage where analogue signals in the dual illumination period can finally be switched off.

TV households will have to buy an expensive set-top box (STB), not yet available, for around R700 to R800, and in several instances also a new TV antenna at an additional cost, to get the digital transmission of existing TV channels.

Around 5 million poorest TV households will get a free STB government hand-out box. Another 3 million South African TV households who will not qualify, will have to buy a STB.

"Digital migration is not a single day event," said Solly Mokoetle. He was a panelist at Monday morning's The New Age breakfast briefing held in Sandton.

"Digital migration is a process," said Mokoetle, admitting that "we've had some stumbling blocks in South Africa for a while, around the approval of the [DTT] policy."

"In fact, in South Africa we already have dual illumination. Which means if you have a STB out there that can receive the digital signal, then definitely you will be digital."

"And I'm saying it is not a train smash," said Mokoetle.

"On 17 June when the ITU deadline reached there were 5 countries in Africa which met the deadline. Most countries have taken long. The United Kingdom took about 13 years to do DTT. We have taken 8 years of which we are still going through the obstacle of policy."

"We are looking at a period of about 18 to 24 months to be able to complete the entire digital migration and to release the digital dividend. But before that we will have reached the stage of analogue switch-off and we will be advising minister of communications Faith Muthambi to declare that period very, very soon," said Mokoetle.

Millions more poor homes than 5 million households

Solly Mokoetle said the STB will no longer come with internet services on the decoder. "Not at this point. The box that we have is a simple box that enables you to watch your television as you were watching before but with better quality and more channels. It is about that. It is not more bells and whistles."

"We are talking here about the subsided box. There will be boxes in retail that are issued out by the broadcasters themselves that may have other features."

Sekoetlane Phamodi, coordinator of the SOS Coalition, which is a civil society, non-profit pressure group advocating for public broadcasting, said millions more South African TV households – many more than the 5 million – are poor according to the 2011 census and need to be given subsidised STBs.

"They also do desperately need to be given these boxes for free as well, given what the census figures tell us about the economic conditions of the people of our country".

"It's quite true," admitted Pumla Radebe, the chairperson of the state-owned Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA).

"When government took the decision, the number was set at 5 million households. And the recent census that we have, has indicated that the figure of indigent households have grown. We currently have a figure of 8.2 million households," said Radebe.

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