Digital migration set to go, but cost could be a snag

2015-03-15 17:00

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Although government appears to have finally made a decision on the digital television migration process, it is still not clear where the funding will come from.

Sentech’s chief operating officer, Kganki Matabane, told the portfolio committees on communications and telecommunications and postal services this week it only had funding for one year of dual illumination.

Dual illumination is the period when the new digital television signal and the old analogue signal are transmitted at the same time.

This is usually the period government allocates to convert all analogue television viewers to digital viewers through the addition of a decoder and an antenna to the old television set.

Matabane told the committee Sentech was “not sure” if it would get funding for another two years from Treasury.The acting director-general of the department of communications, Donald Liphoko, told the committee they were targeting a three-year hard switchover, which means they want to have converted all analogue viewers in three years.

What this means is the country should have a dual-illumination period of three years, or there will be viewers who will be cut off from accessing the public broadcaster if funds are not found.

Sentech spokesperson Mpho Maseko said its finance team was in discussions with National Treasury about funding years two and three of the dual-illumination period.

“A business case has been put forward, but the discussions are not far along,” said Maseko.Besides the money needed for dual illumination, government plans to subsidise 5?million decoders for South Africa’s poorest households.

This is going to cost about R3?billion, which is almost double the last estimate that was based on a system of only partial subsidy.

“Government will provide free [decoders] to more than 5?million poor television household owners instead of a partial subsidy of 70%, as previously approved in 2008,” said Communications Minister Faith Muthambi last week.

Her spokesperson, Ayanda Hollow, said the department had to consult Treasury about funding.

Civil society groups have queried the figure of 5?million decoders, saying the need could be much higher.Sekoetlane Phamodi, from the SOS Coalition, says the number of households that could need subsidies is closer to 7.5?million.

These households earn less than R6?375 a month.Muthambi said the distribution of the decoders would prioritise households in the border regions of the country to avoid and minimise signal interference between them and neighbouring countries.

The reason for the prioritisation of the border regions is that South Africa will not meet the International Telecommunication Union’s agreed deadline of June 17 this year and there could be interference from neighbouring broadcasters.

Muthambi blamed the fight between free-to-air broadcasters over whether conditional access should be included with the decoder for the delays in implementing the migration.

Conditional access is a security feature that allows a broadcaster to deny viewers access to content if they have not paid their licence.

MultiChoice opposes any encryption or access-control measures, as does the SABC, but and others are in favour of them.

“The issue of whether to include the control system in the [decoders] has been a source of disagreement among free-to-air broadcasters for some time now,” said Muthambi.

She finally pronounced on the debate and specified that the “control system” did not mean “conditional access”, nor did it mean “an encryption of the signal to control access to content by viewers”.

“The department calls upon all key role players in the broadcasting fraternity to put behind them all their differences and work together to deliver digital television to our people,” said Muthambi.

“The department will, in consultation with Cabinet, determine and announce the analogue signal switch-on and switch-off dates.”The broadcasting digital migration amendment policy will be gazetted next week.

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