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High Court moves analogue TV switch-off to end-June

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 29 Mar 2022
Communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.
Communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.

Communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni says she welcomes the deferment of the analogue switch-off from 31 March to 30 June.

This, after the Pretoria High Court yesterday ruled the analogue switch-off be postponed to end-June, as reported by Fin24.

Earlier this month, Ntshavheni announced her ministry – the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) – planned to switch off analogue TV signals on 31 March, marking the end of dual-illumination in the country.

The date of 31 March was gazetted despite the legal tussle with Etv regarding the implementation of the broadcasting digital migration.

Etv, owned by eMedia, approached the courts to challenge government’s plan to expedite the digital TV migration process. It argued the move to switch-off analogue at the end of this month will kill the businesses of free-to-air broadcasters.

South Africa’s first and only privately-owned free-to-air television station wanted the High Court to declare the switch-off deadline as unlawful and invalid.

The court ordered a postponement of analogue switch-off by only three months, ruling against most of Etv’s applications.

In a statement issued by the DCDT this morning, Ntshavheni notes and accepts the ruling, saying she’s elated the applications of Etv and the intervening parties have been dismissed with costs.

She urged Etv to “accept the ruling of the court and desist from further attempts to derail the process of digital migration, which will release the much-anticipated high-demand frequency spectrum”.

“Minister Ntshavheni welcomes the deferment on the analogue switch-off date from 31 March to 30 June 2022,” says the statement.

“This deferment is to give government sufficient time to complete installations of set-top boxes (STBs) for households who have timeously registered and thus are entitled to receive their STBs before the analogue switch-off.

“The 30 June 2022 date coincides with the date ICASA had determined and announced as the end of transition period for the broadcasting services and signal distributors to vacate the 800MHz-700MHz band.

“The minister deems it significant that the court has concurred with her and the other respondents that digital migration must be concluded, and the country must have a set date.”

After missing the International Telecommunication Union-mandated June 2015 migration deadline, the DCDT has made numerous attempts to conclude the digital migration process, in order to make available the sub-1GB (800MHz-700MHz) spectrum that’s occupied by analogue TV signals.

Government has undertaken to assist indigent households, who apply for assistance, with 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.

Ahead of the judgement, civil society groups, community TV channels as well as local broadcasters, including the South African Broadcasting Corporation, piled on the pressure, calling for a switch-off delay.

Addressing Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications this morning, Ntshavheni called on civil society coalition #SaveFreeTV to assist her department in its effort to raise awareness of STB registrations.

“I call on the #SaveFreeTV coalition to redirect its energies towards mobilising the qualifying households to register for government assistance.”

In the statement, the minister comments she is pleased that the court, through its judgement, has confirmed the following:

  • Rights are reciprocal and for every right, there is an obligation. This affirms minister Ntshavheni’s publicly expressed view that government has a responsibility to assist only households that register and fulfil requirements for government assistance. In this regard, the minister urges all South Africans who earn less than R3 500 per month to register for government assistance at their nearest post office or online.
  • Government’s responsibility to assist households still watching TV-via analogue transmitters is limited to those households that meet the government-set criteria and register for such assistance. In addition, government had clearly articulated the criteria for those who qualify for government support.
  • It would be unreasonable to allow for a situation where an unknown variable (the unregistered households) is allowed to hold up a process that will eventually be of benefit to all citizens and where government must meet its international obligations.
  • Government has done enough within its powers to help the qualifying households to realise their right to freedom of expression, including freedom to receive information.
  • It is near impossible for government to establish who else qualifies for a STB without the affected households registering, as not all indigent households own an analogue TV and not all households that own an analogue TV are indigent.
  • Etv’s disagreement with the process followed and preference for a process that serves its commercial interests does not require further consultation opportunities. Furthermore, Etv cannot dispute its inclusion in several satisfactory consultations over many years regarding the process of digital migration.
  • The formulation of policy is an executive competency and the duty to consult will only arise in circumstances where it would be irrational to take a decision without further input from industry experts.
  • There is nothing that prevents the minister from determining and announcing the switch-off date as 31 March 2022.
  • It’s in the interest of the country, the economy and South Africans in general that the digital migration be finalised.

It concludes: "The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies remains committed to ensure the 507 251 households that registered by 31 October 2021 are connected by no later than 30 June 2022, which is the date the court has deferred analogue switch-off date to.

"In addition, the department will ensure 260 868 households that registered between 31 October 2021 and 10 March 2022 are connected to their STBs by no later than 30 September 2022.”