Court saga puts set-top box production on ice

Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. Picture: Kopano Tlape/GCIS
Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. Picture: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

Johannesburg - Another delay has hit South Africa’s digital broadcast migration project as the agency behind the rollout of set-top boxes has temporarily halted production of these devices.

Set-top boxes decode digital signals for analogue television sets and government plans to distribute these devices to around 5 million poorer households.

The rollout is key to South Africa’s digital migration project, which intends to shift the SABC, and other broadcasters off of analogue signals and open up radio frequencies for faster mobile broadband services.

But the process has been dogged by delays as broadcasters fight over whether set-top boxes should be encrypted or not.

A Supreme Court of Appeal judgment in May struck down Communications Minister Faith Muthambi’s decision not to encrypt these boxes. Muthambi and broadcaster MultiChoice are challenging the matter in the Constitutional Court in February.

Amid this fight, Lumko Mtimde, CEO of Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa), has told Fin24 that production of the devices has been put on ice.

“The suspension of the production of set-top boxes is based on the analysis of the implications of the May 31 Supreme Court of Appeal judgment and associated risks for Usaasa,”  Lumko Mtimde, CEO of Usaasa, told Fin24 by email.

“The suspension is subject to further discussions with the minister of communications,” Mtimde said.

Usaasa last year appointed 27 service providers for the supply of equipment such as Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) outdoor antennas and DTT set-top boxes.

Criticism of slow progress

Muthambi, meanwhile, was hauled over the coals on Thursday in Parliament over the country’s slow march towards digital migration.

Earlier this week, the communications minister’s office said in a statement that the “Broadcasting Digital Migration Project is well on track” with over 30 000 households in the Northern Cape, Free State, Mpumalanga and Limpopo having registered with the South African Post Office to receive set-top boxes.  

The ministry further said that in October it plans announce a switch-off date in towns located near the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Northern Cape, “where registration and installation has almost reached 99 percent.”

But the country missed a key International Telecommunications Union (ITU) deadline in June last year to switch to digital.

And Fin24 reported on Thursday that MPs were demanding answers from Muthambi, with crticism coming from both ANC and DA benches.

“Your management of this process is found wanting,” said Mmamaloko Kubayi, ANC MP and chairperson of the portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services.

“This project is moving along at a snail’s pace,” Kubayi added.

“We received a presentation on this matter a year ago and a number of assurances were given. You must look at what has been promised to this committee and you must explain why you’ve deviated from it.”

DA MP Marian Shinn, who is a member of the portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services, also criticised Muthambi.

“Minister Muthambi has been totally out of her depth since she took over this project,” Shinn told Fin24 on Thursday.

“Whatever has made the minister unilaterally change the policy – this has now led to a two year court battle. It is not worth the financial cost.”

“This is something the country is desperate for. And as long as this delay perpetuates and we have petty little point scoring going on we are holding back South Africa’s economic growth. It cannot be endured for much longer. We have to break the logjam,” said Shinn.

Parliament also heard on Thursday that 600 000 set-top boxes, which have already been produced, are being stored at South African Post Office (Sapo) facilities.

*Fin24 is part of Media24. Both Media24 and MultiChoice form part of Naspers.

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