Digital TV: South Africa marks significant step forward

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 01 Aug 2023
Communications minister Mondli Gungubele at a Sentech transmitter site in Stellenbosch, Western Cape. (Photograph by DCDT)
Communications minister Mondli Gungubele at a Sentech transmitter site in Stellenbosch, Western Cape. (Photograph by DCDT)

South Africa is finally making strides towards achieving the elusive target of switching from analogue to digital television broadcasting signals.

Yesterday, signal distributor Sentech facilitated the analogue switch-off (ASO) of the frequency bands above 694MHz, marked by a ceremonial switch-off event of the last analogue transmitter site in Stellenbosch, Western Cape.

This comes after Mondli Gungubele, minister in the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, in June gazetted a two-step approach for SA’s years-long delayed Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM).

The phased-approach put forward 31 July as the date to switch-off all analogue broadcasting services above 694MHz, with 31 December 2024 as the end of the dual-illumination period and switch-off of the remaining analogue services below 694MHz.

Speaking to ITWeb, Sentech COO Tebogo Leshope says analogue broadcasting signals above 694MHz have been switched-off across the country, noting this is in line with the minister’s June pronouncement.

“There were a couple of [transmitter] sites across the country that were operating above 694MHz, which are the spectrum frequency bands assigned to telecommunication operators for them to roll out their connectivity and voice services. These were sites across the country that we were switching-off.”

As part of the migration journey, former communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni previously said the ASO of frequency bands above 694MHz had been concluded in the Free State, Northern Cape, North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

However, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Cape still had to be switched-off, Ntshavheni noted at the time.

Leshope confirmed the sites switched-off as part of yesterday’s process were in the above-listed provinces, those above 694MHz.

Tebogo Leshope, COO of Sentech.
Tebogo Leshope, COO of Sentech.

In 2006, South Africa, along with other countries, committed to the International Telecommunication Union’s June 2015 deadline for all countries to switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television.

South Africa’s switch-over process has bedevilled government for more than a decade, characterised by numerous controversies that have further bogged down the process.

After missing the ITU-mandated deadline, Gungubele’s department, which is overseeing the BDM programme, has made numerous attempts to conclude the process.

Migrating from analogue to digital TV will make available the sub-1GB (700MHz-800MHz) radio frequency spectrum bands occupied by the analogue TV signals.

These are the spectrum bands licensed during telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s “historic” spectrum auction in March 2022.

As a result, the phased-approach was seen as significant progress for continued television programming and increased access to mobile broadband services.

Commenting on when telcos can expect to use the spectrum frequency bands, Leshope notes the spectrum has been available to telcos in other provinces – the five initially switched-off. “The remaining provinces were these last four, where we’ve switched-off analogue above 694MHz.

“From my understanding, the regulator is working with the telcos…and the main target is that within a month or two months’ time, they should be able to access the spectrum once they have fulfilled their regulatory requirements.

“From a network point of view, analogue has been switched-off completely, so the frequencies are off and they are no longer above 694MHz. There could be some spectrum clearing issues, which should be completed in a matter of two to three weeks.

“One can anticipate that in a month’s time, telcos will definitely have the go-ahead from the regulator.”

Consumer access

Leshope explains that for those consumers who don’t have the means to receive digital broadcasting services, indigent households earning below R3 500 are eligible for government-subsidised set-top boxes (STBs).

These households can apply for an STB at their nearest SA Post Office branch or online. “Most households have been covered throughout the past years.

“The STBs have been rolled out for quite a while and we do believe that, in terms of the subsidised group, the majority has been captured. Households that fall outside this group, but are covered by DStv, OVHD and StarSat, will not be affected by analogue switch-off. Citizens do not have to worry about that.

“If you don’t fall within any of these groups, the option is to buy an integrated digital television (IDTV) set, which are available across retail stores. The IDTV already has the capability to receive digital services.”

For Sentech moving forward, the COO notes the entity will continue to prepare for the second phase in the two-step approach, which is the end of dual-illumination by 31 December 2024.

“Rolling out of STBs will continue; we will ramp up awareness for people to apply for these decoders and we’ll be converting households that are below 694MHz analogue signals, in preparation for the deadline.

“We will also be rehabilitating the infrastructure for a digital era, removing the analogue technologies from the sites and preparing sites for any digitisation going forward,” he concludes.