SONA: Ramaphosa addresses digital TV delays, spectrum licence battles

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 11 Feb 2021
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the 2021 SONA before a hybrid joint-sitting.
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the 2021 SONA before a hybrid joint-sitting.

President Cyril Ramaphosa used his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to shed light on government’s latest timelines in regards to the years-long delayed digital migration project, promising action in the next month.

ITWeb reported this week that 3.5 million South African households still need to migrate from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

Although SA committed to the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU's) call for all nations to switch to DTT, the country missed the June 2015 deadline to complete the full switchover. The ITU has called on nations to migrate to digital to allow radio frequency spectrum to be freed up for mobile broadband services.

The implementation of SA’s Broadcasting Digital Migration programme has been painstakingly slow, with controversies and department leadership changes bogging down the process even further.

During his SONA, Ramaphosa said after many delays, government would “begin the phased switch-off of the analogue TV transmitters from next month”.

“The completion of digital migration is vital to our ability to effectively harness the enormous opportunities that are presented by technological change that is going on around the world.

“It is anticipated that this process, which will be done province by province, will be completed by the end of March 2022.”

Turning to the licensing of spectrum, Ramaphosa noted the ongoing legal battles that have ensued after the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) set the ball rolling for the spectrum auction.

Last October, ICASA announced the invitation to apply for the licensing of International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum, also known as high-demand spectrum, and that of the wholesale open access network.

Spectrum allocation is also critical to SA in regards to the reduction of data prices which resulted in the #DataMustFall campaigns. Since 2016, South Africans have been complaining about the high price of data through the #DataMustFall social media banner, and both the Competition Commission and ICASA initiated inquiries into data pricing.

Furthermore, for government, a spectrum auction will boost the fiscus.

However, some mobile telcos have approached the courts in a bid to halt the process which is earmarked for March.

Last month, MTN filed an application in the Gauteng High Court to declare unlawful, and to review, correct or set aside two decisions made by ICASA which relate to the spectrum auction process.

In December last year, Telkom also filed an urgent court application, saying it considers the regulator’s decisions to be irregular and unlawful.

Ramaphosa said: “The process for the licensing of high-speed spectrum is at an advanced stage. We hope the ongoing litigation amongst interested parties or the licensing measures will provide certainty and will not unduly delay the spectrum auction process that we have decided on.”

This was the first time in Parliament’s history that the SONA was delivered by means of a hybrid joint-sitting of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces.

It was only Ramaphosa and a limited number of members of Parliament and distinguished guests who were in the National Assembly chamber, while the rest of the members joined in virtually.