High court delays analogue TV switch-off

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Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.
Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.
  • The high court in Pretoria has ruled that South Africa’s analogue television switch-off date must be postponed from end-March to end-June.
  • But e.tv lost its bid to slow down the process significantly.
  • The court found that government has done enough within its powers to help poor households who are stuck with analogue televisions.

The high court in Pretoria ruled that South Africa’s analogue television switch-off date must be postponed from end-March to end-June – but e.tv has lost its bid to slow down the process significantly.

Government is switching off analogue television transmitters to free up broadband spectrum.

According to court papers, an estimated 3.75 million households with analogue sets could apply for set-top boxes to "migrate" their televisions - but by mid-March, fewer than 1.12 million had applied, and only around 660 000 households had had new set-top boxes installed.

It is estimated that 8.25 million poor South Africans will be left without free-to-air television following the switch-off. More than half of e.tv’s viewers may fall into this group.

The broadcaster wanted the court to declare the switch-off deadline as unlawful and invalid, and argued that the deadline could not be proclaimed until government had complied with its constitutional obligations to provide poor households with analogue television with alternative means to access free-to-air television.

It also wanted the court to force the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Khumbudzo Ntshavheni to consult with e.tv and other parties before setting the switch-off date, and to do more to help households migrate, including by setting up call centres.

But the high court found that government has done enough within its powers to help the qualifying households, and ruled against most of e.tv's applications.

"It is in the interest of the country, the economy and for South Africans in general that the digital migration be finalised."

But apart from postponing the switch-off date, it also ruled that set top boxes for more than 507 000 households, who registered by 31 October, needed to be installed no later than end-June. Some 261 000 households who registered in recent months must have their devices installed by end-September.

The postponement of the switch-off date was a significant victory, said William Bird, director at Media Monitoring Africa, which joined e.tv as an applicant in the case.

The ruling comes hot on the heels of a heated battle between the communications minister and public broadcaster the SABC over the switch-off deadline.

The court ordered e.tv to pay 50% of the minister’s legal costs, and the full legal bill of two other respondents in the case, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa and Vodacom.

The country's digital migration process - already long delayed - began in March last year. Five provinces have already made the switch, but the Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, which together make up most of the country's population, have not yet done so. 

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