February 17, 2019

Committee assured digital broadcast migration on target

Minister of Communications Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, who has been in her post for about two months, announced to the Communication Committee that the deadline to complete digital migration is June 2019.

Committee members may be forgiven if they have their doubts. This is the latest in almost a decade of delays and missed deadlines.

New Minister of Communications Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane entered the beleaguered Department of Communications at a bad time. Not only did she encounter the SABC crisis, but also immediately faced South Africa’s stop-start efforts to implement the migration to digital TV.

South Africa has been unsuccessfully trying to catch up with its digital migration goals for years.

Is this, the third Communications Minister in a year, ready to take on a process that has been mired in confusion, delays and missed deadlines for more than a decade?

At a meeting of the Communication Committee held at the end of January, she announced that the switchover to digital broadcasting is due to take place in June 2019. Prior deadlines have been missed with such regularity that some eyebrows may have been raised at this display of ministerial assurance.

This is not a self-imposed deadline, she explained to the Committee. It had been set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) she said, apparently unperturbed by the knowledge that South Africa has missed ITU deadlines before, the first time back in June 2015.

She now takes on the encryption versus non-encryption decision, which is being studied by her Department in light of last year’s Constitutional Court judgment, as well as a pending report on long-standing allegation about possible collusion between officials and the manufacturers of set-top boxes (STBs).

Minister Kubayi-Ngubane seems confident that the June 2019 deadline is to be the last, even though the Department has been requested not to undertake any procurement for the project until the above investigations are completed.

She is also aware that there is a possibility of further delays due to the increasing number of households acquiring TV sets.

She told the Committee that her department has established a “war room” to implement the project to meet the June 2019 international deadline.

“I met with the entire team across the value chain. We have representatives of National Treasury, we have representatives of the Department of Trade and Industry and we have representatives that are impacted on the project,” she stated confidently. “We think we are now ready in terms of our work.”

For those still not in the know, digital migration is the process of switching over from an analogue television signal to a digital terrestrial television signal, which would allow for the radio frequency spectrum to be freed up and enable faster and more effective internet access.

But South Africa is lagging well behind on the continent amid the tender manipulation allegations over the rollout of STBs – devices required for decoding digital signals for analogue television sets – and has been unsuccessfully trying to catch up with its digital migration goals for years.

Government policy on the need for encryption in free-to-air broadcasting has changed as often as Zuma has reshuffled his Communication Ministers, and suggestions have been made that delays and policy conflicts are related to the controversy over the tender manipulation allegations regarding the procurement of STBs as well as allegations of bribery and corruption implicating pay-tv firm MultiChoice in a dispute with e-tv.

MultiChoice, a subsidiary of media giant Naspers, made payments to news channel ANN7 allegedly to secure a change in policy on the digital migration. In the latest development in this ongoing saga MultiChoice agreed it had made mistakes, but denied all allegations of corruption.

Five million South Africans were initially identified for government subsidies for STBs. This was a serious underestimation. The Department was to provide for migration in TV-owning households that earned less than R3 000 per month, but households that did not have TV sets then bought sets, bringing the number entitled to government subsidisation closer to seven million, which meant realigning the funding.

To add to that, delays in the project left the earliest recipients with technology that had become obsolete and new models will have to be procured.

Minister Kubayi-Ngubane told the Portfolio Committee on Communication that the Department of Communications (DOC) will be able to deliver South Africa’s broadcasting digital migration (BDM) on time if given the necessary resources (own italics).

Therein lies the rub. Her message to the Committee suggests that currently the main obstacle to meeting the latest deadline is lack of funding.

She appealed to “our colleagues in finance and National Treasury, let's find mechanisms to fund this project so that we can migrate. We think we have been able to put in place all mechanisms to be able to migrate,” she told the Committee.

Mr Thabiso Thiti, Acting Director-General: DoC, told the Committee that R6 billion was required to fund the project.

He said the digital transmission network had been fully deployed and was active across the country and 87.3% of South Africans were in a position to receive digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasts, while the remaining 12.7% outside DTT coverage could receive broadcasts via direct-to-home (DTH) satellite.

The government was currently distributing subsidised decoders for both DTT and DTH platforms.

With regard to digital broadcast content, all three South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) channels and the news channel were currently live on air on the DTT and satellite network, as well as six channels from e.tv. In addition, all 18 SABC radio stations were available throughout the country on the digital TV network, he reported.

He said the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) national standards for STBs and integrated digital TV were in force, and manufacturers were producing receivers according to published standards, which has been in dispute for some time in the industry.

In terms of STB procurement and distribution, he reported that:

  • The R2.45-billion budget was sufficient for only 1.5 million kits (STBs, aerials and installation costs).
  • The Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) had ordered 1.5 million STB kits from various manufacturers between 2014 and 2015.
  • To date, over 851 720 STB kits had been delivered to the SA Post Office (SAPO) warehouses where they are stored before installation.
  • So far, more than 563 667 registrations for those eligible for free installation had been recorded, with 283 478 installations allocated to installers and completed nationwide.

The first installations have been completed in the Northern Cape’s square kilometre array (SKA) region in order to comply with the international radio telescope project requirements. This amounted to a total of 23 161 installations and analogue broadcasts (18 transmitters) have now been switched off in the SKA area.

Mr Thiti said that the intention for the remaining period (July 2018 to June 2019) was to procure devices for the remainder of the provinces and the rollout of their installation.

He warned of challenges that this presented, such as a shortage of the DTH devices and lack of installation skills, but said discussions were under way to develop a procurement model and fast track the awareness programme through various platforms.

The aim is to use existing qualified local installers, in collaboration with municipalities, and increase capacity through the Department of Public Works’ (DPW’s) Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) on installer training. The Department had entered into a memorandum of understanding with DPW to train about ten individuals to install the STBs and place them in their local installation companies.

Moira Levy

With information sourced from the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG).

Additional Info

  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Friday, 02 February 2018 18:57

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