USAASA spends R5m a month on set-top box storage

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 26 May 2020

The Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (USAASA) is looking to have the total 860 000 digital migration set-top boxes (STBs), earmarked for three provinces, installed in those qualifying households by March 2021.

This deadline comes as it prioritises clearing the stock of the government-subsidised STBs, which are stored in South African Post Office (SAPO) warehouses at a cost of R5.1 million a month.

USAASA noted this information during a virtual briefing to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications on its 2020/21 annual performance plan and budget. The communications and digital technologies ministry, which is charged with stakeholder management of the broadcasting digital migration project, also provided feedback on the status of SA’s switch to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

The migration from analogue to DTT is necessary to free the much-needed spectrum in the 700MHz and 800MHz bands, to improve connectivity.

After missing the June 2015 deadline to switch to DTT, government’s efforts to fast-track digital migration have been found wanting, with the project plagued by countless delays and controversies.

Provincial priority

With set-top box storage costs amounting to R60 million per annum, as deputy communications minister Pinky Kekana indicated during the briefing, USAASA has prioritised that the warehoused STBs be moved to provinces that have been prioritised, namely Free State, North West and Northern Cape.

Recently-appointed USAASA administrator Basil Ford admitted the government-led project experienced numerous challenges in the past that relate to installations not done well, which led to quality assurance problems.

Furthermore, there were issues around lack of localisation, meaning installers were coming in from outside the areas where the DTT decoders were being installed and would not be available if problems arose, said Ford.

“Because we don't want to hold up the digital migration, we are looking at a different way of doing [the rollout] this year. What we're trying to do is bring in a project management service, and that project management service will address all the issues that we have experienced in the past.

“In trying to ensure we don’t keep the stock in the SAPO warehouses…we are looking at putting those into the priority provinces: Free State, Northern Cape and the North West.”

Robert Nkuna, director-general (DG) in the communications and digital technologies department, added: “We need to get rid of the set-top boxes that we have in the warehouses of the post office…we need to make sure those set of boxes are given to those who are entitled to them so that we can have more people who receive digital terrestrial television.”

On the issue of governance and organisation of the DTT project, Nkuna revealed the ministry has established a task team, which has been seconded to USAASA, to expedite the process and unlock the work that needs to be carried out.

Instability in how the project is governed creates problems and this has been a challenge historically, he said. “The issue of DTT governance is a very important issue…I have asked the DDG concerned to be responsible for the project as much as he is responsible for the broadband project, so that all infrastructure projects are housed within the same unit.

“Between the DDG and I, we had a discussion on the capacity that we needed to assist at USAASA, and agreed the capacity that we need goes beyond the unit because it also involves people who are not necessarily under infrastructure, but these are people who deal with stakeholder management, particularly in terms of governmental relations. These are the people we are seconding to assist at USAASA.”

USAASA administrator Basil Ford.
USAASA administrator Basil Ford.

Courting Sentech

Ford told the portfolio committee that USAASA also intends to use a project management office to facilitate the DTT project, and is in discussions with signal distributor Sentech to provide that service.

“That service will be to look at almost the entire value chain, which is looking at the appointment of local installers, doing the quality control of the installations to make sure the installations actually work and then afterwards, to provide post-installation management.

“The post-installation management is also very important – what happens when the set-top box is installed and the installers leave and there is a problem, so that's very critical.

“We believe that if we take this particular approach, it will help us to get to a point where we can install all 860 000 set-top boxes by the end of March [next year]; that is the intention. We're also developing the model in such a way that it becomes scalable.”

According to Nkuna, having Sentech involved in the connection of STBs is critical to the path to DTT. “This is very important because there must be no separation between connection and signal distribution because then we are going to have problems. We are saying that the company that is responsible for signal distribution should also be involved in the connection.

“We have now asked USAASA, because they have the money for connections, to appoint Sentech. The current challenges with the National Treasury regulations is that when one state entity wants to use another state entity, as soon as there is a transfer of money or payment, then it is required to follow procurement processes.

“What we are asking for is for National Treasury to give a deviation, so that USAASA doesn’t have to go through any long procurement process but appoint Sentech directly.”

Deputy DG Nomvuyiso Batyi indicated: “USAASA is expected to no later than the end of this month of May to ensure it has a draft agreement in place with Sentech and that agreement is also tabled by National Treasury too.”

Batyi added the agency is currently working on the agreement, to ensure it is sent to all the relevant entities for approval.