Cape Town – Tens of millions of South African TV households literally have no idea that they're going to be forced to pay around R800 and more just to keep watching the free TV they've been watching as the country's long-delayed and derailed switch from analogue to digital television drags on.
More than a year after South Africa's department of communications missed the international deadline of June 2015 to complete the switch to digital terrestrial television (DTT) – a process known as digital migration that's already fraught with several allegations of corruption that's being investigated – the South African government finally revealed in parliament on Thursday the shocking cost to TV households of the very expensive exercise.
Millions of South African TV households without satellite television – people who watch the SABC, e.tv and community TV stations without DStv, M-Net, StarSat or OpenView HD – are going to be forced to fork out hundreds of rands to buy a decoder known as a set-top box (STB) and in many instances also a new antenna.
Without it, viewers will eventually be cut off and no longer be able to receive free-to-air channels like SABC1 for instance.
While the government is set to give free STBs away to only the poorest of the poor households – around 5,2 million TV households – it still leaves millions of South African TV households out in the TV cold.
These TV households are going to discover that they have to pay out of their own pocket hundreds of rand just to keep watching their Generations, Muvhango and Rhythm City on the SABC and e.tv when the existing analogue TV signals are eventually switched off.
In its presentation to parliament, the department of communications revealed that about 650 000 STBs without any encryption system have been manufactured in South Africa and have been delivered to the South African Post Office. The Post Office will have to help with distribution.
These STBs that were ordered and manufactured in bulk cost the government (including VAT) R687,94 (CZ Electronics), R689,26 (BUA Africa) and R689,26 (Leratidima) each.
Ellies satellite dishes cost R441,71 and antennas from Temic Manufacturing and QEC cost R135,09 and R177,70 each.
The costing gives a shocking indication of what South Africans who don't qualify for a DTT subsidy will have to pay commercially when they are forced to buy a STB and an antenna for their TV sets.
While most new flatscreen TV sets now have DTT tuners already built-in, millions of South African TV households who don’t qualify as poor enough but already have a TV set, simply don't have the expendable income to buy a new flatscreen costing thousands or even the R800 to buy a STB and antenna.
Further complicating the already convoluted and delayed process is ongoing legal action further hampering the DTT roll-out process.
These already manufactured STBs – around 650 000 – were made without a built-in encryption system known as (CA) conditional access.
e.tv took the government to court over the lack of a CA system in STBs and in May this year won its digital TV box encryption case in the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA).
The minister of communications Faith Muthambi decided to appeal the decision further and is taking it to the Constitutional Court in a case that is set to be heard on 17 February 2017.
If her appeal here fails as well, the already manufactured STBs that's cost the government R305 million so far – some of which have already been handed out to poor households – will be the wrong ones that doesn't have the encryption features broadcasters like e.tv and others might use in future to protect their content and broadcast high definition (HD) TV channels.
Faith Muthambi told parliament on Thursday that "the DTT project is being rolled out despite minor challenges".
"Challenges relate to lack of funding for a public awareness campaign, dual illumination [and] the establishment of a contact centre. On The South African Post Office, there is also risk issues".
Besides average South Africans being clueless that they're going to have to pay to keep watching free television, there's also controversy about the awarding of the STB tenders with an forensic investigation that was launched, as well as an investigation into a company that got a tender to do DTT public awareness campaigns.
As the department of communications has said for over a decade now with few actual DTT "deliverables" as South Africa kept falling behind with the switch to digital TV, Muthambi again on Thursday told parliament that "the department is committed to work with all key role players to ensure that the broadcasting digital migration process is successfully implemented".