Pay R700 or lose your TV signal

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

The South African government will only be subsidising a portion of the cost for the "poorest of the poor" households, but no plan has yet been announced on how it will practically work.

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

Slow process

Ordinary consumers and viewers who are largely uninformed and in the dark about the process which an expert calls "shambolic", will be forced to make the move to digital terrestrial television (DTT) or lose their TV signals from the SABC, and others.

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 with several countries having successfully completed the process long ago.

Although South Africa was the first country on the continent to start the process, they are now lagging far behind several African nations, islands and the rest of the world in the digital migration process.

South Africa's slow process - of which the launch should have taken place more than two years ago - has been delayed several times.

Last year the government moved the launch date to April 2012. It has now again been pushed back to September.

Looming digital disaster?

Since South Africa started the process, it has had several problems including four 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 ongoing uncertainty which makes it harder for the industry and broadcasters to keep up.

It's also unclear – as no regulations exist under the new digital framework - on 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, told government that it's underfunded and will need billions more to complete DTT.

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

Minister Pule also said in the ad that the era of high definition (HD) broadcasting has arrived for ordinary South Africans. While it's true that DTT does enable HD broadcasting, consumers need a HD television set to see it.

In a stark warning on South Africa's digital broadcasting progress - or lack thereof - Prof 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.

"There is very little civil society involvement". She calls South Africa's DTT process "shambolic".

"The government has repeatedly shifted the deadline for analogue switch-off," she said. "So far STB subsidies have been budgeted for a mere 6% of households, which is clearly inadequate."

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