Digital migration worries Parliament

Paul Vecchiatto
By Paul Vecchiatto, ITWeb Cape Town correspondent
Cape Town, 12 Mar 2008

Members of Parliament are worried about the apparent lack of progress by the Department of Communications (DOC) in preparing the country for the migration from analogue to digital terrestrial TV (DTTV).

"This is the biggest roll-out in this country's history, with a fixed time frame, and I don't get a sense of urgency from the department about it. This should really be government's number one priority," said committee chairman Ismail Vadi (ANC).

Yesterday, a DOC delegation, headed by director-general Lyndall Shope-Mafole, addressed the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications on her department's strategic plans, which include DTTV.

The country is due to switch on DTTV in November this year and a dual illumination period will end in November 2011, when analogue signal broadcasting will cease.

Many, some within the DOC, consider this to be an ambitious programme as the International Telecommunications Union, the international body that overseas country frequency allocation, has given SA until 2015 to complete the migration.

Laid back?

Fuelling Parliament's concern is that the Digital Migration Policy - the DOC document that is supposed to outline how the migration will take place - has not yet been published.

The specifications for the set-top boxes (STB), that will convert the digital signals for display on a TV set, have not been finalised; there appears to be no progress on the finalisation of the STB subsidy scheme; and there are no concrete plans for a consumer awareness campaign over the whole issue.

Also of concern is that the organisation that has been earmarked for leading the migration, "Digital Dzonga", only employs one person, although it is supposed to eventually employ more than 40 people.

These issues are over and above the fractious debate that has been going on between Parliament, the DOC, National Treasury and national signal distributor Sentech over the latter's funding.

Shope-Mafole's answer, as to why there may appear to be no sense of urgency, was "because we [in the DOC] are used to working in this ever-changing environment, which moves very fast".

She went on to say that the publication of the migration policy had been delayed because of an attempt to accommodate all role players, in particular Sentech and MIH, which represented private signal distributor Orbicom. She noted that otherwise the policy was ready for publication.

Switch the date

Digital Dzonga chairperson Lara Kantor, who has been seconded from the SABC, said that in her opinion there may be a need to review the switch-off date, and the specifications for the STBs would be finalised by April.

In reply to Democratic Alliance MP Paul Swart on whether she was feeling lonely, she said her organisation would receive more staff by June.

Kantor also addressed the controlled access that may be incorporated into the STBs that has led to speculation that the SABC wants to be able to turn off people who have not paid their TV licences.

"Speaking in my personal capacity, it is not that the SABC wants to turn off people who have not paid their TV licences, because that defeats the whole object of free-to-air. Rather the question of controlled access has to do with stopping the grey marketing of STB or [it] being exported," she said.

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DOC receives rocket over Sentech funding