Residents say government-sponsored decoders for digital broadcasting are substandard and useless to them
If all had gone well, pensioner Onica Lekgetho would be enjoying a perfect television picture; instead she is staring at a blank screen and a government-supplied set-top box (decoder) that is not working.
The 67-year-old sits inside her house with nature’s grating cicada sounds seemingly piercing through the walls on a typical blazing hot summer day in Tsetse village outside Mahikeng in the North West.
With a satellite dish mounted to her house and a television aerial on top of it, Lekgetho could easily ignore the irritating cricket and cicada noise by listening to radio or watching television, but she cannot.
The two signal transmitters are useless.
She cannot use the satellite dish’s decoder because her family cannot afford high digital television subscription, hence they qualified for government-sponsored set-top boxes that would have provided several free-to-air TV and radio stations.
Billions spent on shoddy work
Lekgetho’s set-top box “suddenly went off” years before the official analogue switch-off date.
Together with many others, she is now stuck with a small black box and no promised high-quality television picture.
The department of communications and digital technologies, through the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (Usaasa), has so far spent more than R1.3 billion on free set-top boxes for indigent families over the recent years, but the effort does not appear to have been worth it for some frustrated beneficiaries who never got to enjoy the intended long-term benefit.
It was all a great relief for Lekgetho and others when the new digital boxes were installed.
“The picture was perfect and my grandchildren enjoyed it and stayed home after school watching kiddies’ programmes, but this is not the case anymore,” the grandmother said.
“Everything has gone blank … no television picture and no radio. We don’t know where to turn to with this box.”
Usaasa handles the broadcast digital migration for the department.
The aim was to ready poor families with a household income of less than R3 200 so that they would not be left out when the analogue terrestrial television signal was switched off and replaced by a digital signal.
Tsetse is one of many villages where free set-top boxes were installed, and some of those who received them have questioned their quality.
Questions have now been raised on whether the decoders and aerials manufactured by South African companies and supplied to indigent families who could not afford digital-ready TV sets and satellite television subscription were of a poor standard.
The department of communications has since committed to investigate.
More beneficiaries complain
“Before they installed this thing the picture was alright; it became perfect after the installation of the decoder in 2017, much to my family’s pleasure. But it only lasted two months and then the signal started getting lost frequently and we later realised that one of the cable heads at the back of the decoder was broken,” said another Tsetse villager, Victoria Lekatse.
“We never really enjoyed this thing … It was a great idea which I believe was compromised by low-quality devices. I am tired of all the government’s promises because nothing ever gets delivered [in perfect condition]. I am stuck with this decoder and we can’t afford DStv.”
Pauline Nkotlo said the company that was installing set-top boxes in the village never fitted hers in.
“The installers came in one evening in a big rush, telling us that they could not do the installation because of the cloudy weather at the time. They made us sign some paper, promising to return but never did. We had to figure out ourselves how to install the aerial outside and connect to the decoder and television.
“We only realised later that we signed to confirm that it was installed when it actually was not. I understand that it was a tender, which means they were paid for [work that was not done]. We did it ourselves and the television picture was better, but did not last long before it started losing signal and later stopped working altogether.”
Many villagers said their set-top-boxes were of “low quality”, as some cable heads broke when they moved the set-top boxes during house cleaning.
“The department has received reports that some of the manufacturers that are contracted by Usaasa to manufacture decoders may have imported substandard decoders.
“The department has asked Usaasa to investigate these allegations and there will be hefty penalties against manufacturers if these allegations are found to be true,” said department spokesperson Mish Molakeng.
But those tasked with investigation appear not to be too worried about what was delivered.
“The set-top boxes have a Go Digital sticker, meaning they conform to SA National Standard (SANS) 862 DTT [digital terrestrial television] and SANS 1719 DTH [direct-to-home] requirements as set out by the SABS.
“Further, these standards are regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of SA,” said Usaasa acting chief executive Lavhelesani Netshidzivhani.
On what is to be done by those with broken decoders, Molakeng said: “Every decoder comes with a standard two-year warranty. In the event that the decoder stops working for whatever reason, the beneficiaries can report to their nearest Post Office for replacement.”
Those who spoke to City Press said they were not made aware of the warranty provisions and even if they wanted to report faults, they’d had the decoders for more than two years already.
Usaasa had appointed three companies to manufacture and deliver more than 1.4 million set-top boxes.
The state-owned enterprise told City Press that only one company, CZ Electronics, had delivered its 500 000 set-top boxes order, while two others – Leratadima Marketing Solutions and Bua Africa – were expected to deliver by mid-December.
Racing against time
Netshidzivhani said 511 368 set-top boxes had been installed countrywide so far, with 575 862 yet to be installed.
“The target is the same figure as it is reliant on the total number of qualifying households recorded,” he said.
It appears, however, that more poor families are expected to apply for the benefit, with Usaasa saying on its website that the set-top box project seeks to “ensure that the 5 million poor TV-owning households targeted for subsidisation indeed receive set-top boxes and become part of the digital South Africa”.
The agency said the analogue cut-off date had been set for June 2021.
“It is expected that all [set-top boxes] will have been installed to qualifying households [by the cut-off date],” said Netshidzivhani.
With the other two companies yet to complete the initial orders more than two years since they were awarded contracts, it remains to be seen whether all the poor households will be covered and everyone made ready for analogue cut-off in one-and-half years, given that some are already experiencing glitches with their set-top boxes.
Asked about meeting targets, Netshidzivhani said: “Yes, the agency is confident [that it will] do so by the time analogue switch-off takes place.”
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