Fuzzy signals blur digital TV move

2012-04-17 00:00

CAPE TOWN – Every South African household with a TV set will be forced to pay R700 for a set top box (STB) or lose their free TV signals.

The South African government will subsidise only a portion of the cost for the “poorest of the poor” households, but no plan has yet been announced of how it will work in practice.

Communications Minister Dina Pule has announced in government-run print ads that South Africans will have to fork out around R700 to buy an STB and a new antenna.

People who don’t pay for the STB “in the region of R700” will eventually lose their TV signal at the end of a process of “dual illumination”, when the terrestrial signals are switched off.

Viewers are largely in the dark about the process, which an expert calls “shambolic”, and which will force them to make the move to digital terrestrial television (DTT) or lose their free-to air-TV signals.

This process is known as digital migration — a switch during which the South African TV industry and broadcasters all have to move from terrestrial signals to digital broadcasting similar to the rest of the world.

The final international deadline is June 2015. Several countries successfully completed the process long ago.

Although SA is the first country on the continent to start the process, it is lagging far behind several African nations, islands and the rest of the world in the digital migration process.

The launch has been delayed several times. Last year the government moved the launch date to April 2012.

Now it has been pushed back again to September.

Since SA started the process it has had several problems: different ministers of communications; a Digital Dzonga advisory council that was started and disbanded twice and which no longer exists; continued infighting between broadcasters; fighting between the industry and the government over a digital standard; delays in the establishment of a STB manufacturing standard; signal encryption squabbles; ongoing confusion amongst STB manufacturers; and fears that South Africa will become a dumping ground for obsolete technology.

At the same time, the broadcasting regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), keeps publishing newer DTT regulations and amending previous regulations, creating further uncertainty for the industry and broadcasters.

It’s also unclear — as no regulations exist under the new digital framework — as to what the so-called “must-carry” rules will be and whether satellite TV operators DStv and TopTV will have to continue to carry the current and expanding free-to-air TV channels.

Meanwhile the parastatal signal distributor Sentech, which is behind with its rolling out of a digital signal network, has told the government that it is underfunded and will need billions more to complete DTT.

The SABC, which wants to increase its TV channel offering from three to 18, told the government earlier this year it will need billions more to complete the move.

In a stark warning on South Africa’s digital broadcasting progress — or lack thereof — Professor Jane Duncan, the Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, said: “The policy and regulatory machinations on the migration process are taking place in elite governmental and regulatory forums, which do not lend themselves to citizen participation.”

She called South Africa’s DTT process “shambolic”.

“So far STB subsidies have been budgeted for a mere six percent of households, which is clearly inadequate.”

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