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Eyes on ConCourt as analogue switch-off showdown looms

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 17 May 2022

The Constitutional Court (ConCourt) showdown over the country’s analogue switch-off (ASO) deadline has been set for Friday, 20 May.

Broadcaster Etv approached the ConCourt on an urgent basis to appeal the High Court ruling that deferred the switch-off deadline from 31 March to 30 June.

Etv, joined by the SOS Coalition, Media Monitoring Africa and now the #SaveFreeTV campaign, is looking to the ConCourt to delay the ASO deadline.

South Africa’s first and only privately-owned free-to-air television station argues that a delay will give sufficient time to complete set-top box (STB) installations for qualifying households, to still enjoy free-to-air TV channels and access to vital news and information.

Government has undertaken to assist indigent households that applied for STBs, which are required to convert digital broadcasting signals on analogue TV sets. Qualifying households − those with an income of R3 500 per month or less – are required to register for these devices at their nearest SA Post Office branch.

#SaveFreeTV backing

With the ConCourt matter set to be heard on Friday, the#SaveFreeTV campaign has come out in full support of the free-to-air broadcasters opposing the analogue TV switch-off.

The campaign says it fully supports the objectives of the litigants, claiming that “millions of South Africans will be left without access to the information resource of public benefit broadcasting” if the switch-off happens on the designated 30 June deadline.

It states: “The #SaveFreeTV campaign supports Etv’s contention that the ASO can be postponed without affecting the frequencies that are being sold-off in the frequency spectrum auction. Some TV transmitters reaching the country’s major urban areas can remain on analogue transmission by utilising frequencies below the 700MHz level.

“It is deeply unfortunate that minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has chosen to pursue a path of belligerent confrontation with both our movement and free-to-air broadcasters, instead of providing effective leadership which will secure an efficient broadcast digital migration and ASO in the interests of all parties involved.

“The #SaveFreeTV campaign calls on the minister to engage with all parties concerned in a reasonable and responsible manner in order to achieve a solution that will be of benefit to all, not least the South African free-to-air television audience, and through this measure secure the future of the digital terrestrial television platform.”

#SaveFreeTV says it supports the objective of getting free STBs rolled out. However, it notes that even if all 1.5 million STBs are installed by the end of June, the number represents just 12% of the total free-to-air TV audience of 5.7 million households, as calculated by the Broadcast Research Council of South Africa.

“Minister Ntshavheni is at pains to refer to the government provision of free STBs as a simple act of kindness on the part of the Cabinet and to recall that there is no regulatory or legislative requirement on the government to do so. She omits the fact that many other African countries have also taken steps to provide free STBs to their citizens to facilitate the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting.

“However, the ‘elephant in the room’ is that no one is talking about the ‘missing middle’ of TV households that earn above R3 500 a month but who still won’t be able to afford either pay-TV or a new integrated digital TV set.”

According to the campaign, its research shows there are very few alternative STBs in the market. “While pay-TV platforms MultiChoice and OpenView are signing-up thousands of new subscribers every day, those who can’t afford these satellite-based services are left to fend for themselves.”

Of government’s plans to have its own STBs in the retail market, #SaveFreeTV states “this is going to take some time to happen (if at all), with the result that millions of South Africans stand to be without access to free-to-air TV services at the time of the ASO”.

Forging ahead

Despite the legal tussle with Etv, Ntshavheni said last month her department is working to complete the analogue switch-off as per the High Court order.

Ntshavheni’s ministry, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), together with some of its entities, is overseeing the country’s digital migration programme.

The minister revealed the DCDT is committed to ensure the 507 251 households that registered by 31 October 2021 have their STBs installed by no later than 30 June 2022, and the same for those the High Court directed be installed by no later than 30 September 2022.

After missing the International Telecommunication Union-mandated June 2015 migration deadline, the DCDT has made numerous attempts to conclude the country’s digital migration process.

The switch to digital is important because it will make available the sub-1GB (700MHz-800MHz) radio frequency bands occupied by the analogue TV signals.

These are the spectrum bands licensed during telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA’s (ICASA’s) “historic” spectrum auction in March. ICASA has determined and announced 1 July 2022 as the end of the transition period for the broadcasting services and signal distributors to vacate the 700MHz-800MHz bands.