Digital deadline drifting out of reach

Read time 6min 40sec

SA is poised to miss its new deadline for switching off analogue television signal, as there are too many aspects that need tackling in the next two years before the new format broadcasting can become a reality.

The industry welcomed communications minister Roy Padayachie's announcement on Friday that Cabinet endorsed a Southern African Development Community (SADC) decision to use the European DVB-T2 digital standard to migrate from analogue broadcast.

However, the industry says there is too much to be done to meet the new analogue turn-off deadline of December 2013, even though Padayachie moved SA's original November 2011 deadline out by two years.

It has taken government more than five years to finally decide to use a standard that is essentially an upgrade to Cabinet's 2006 choice of DVB-T. SADC aims to move away from analogue broadcasting by the end of 2013, and SA intends following suit.

While there was always a risk SA would miss the international cut-off date of mid-2015, selecting the second-generation DVB-T2 standard will require even more work to be done, and more money will have to be spent. “There is a cost of every decision, and that cost, we think, will be outweighed by the benefit,” says Padayachie.

The minister said on Friday that by the end of 2013, only digital signal will be available, and government must equip every household in SA with a set-top box (STB) so that the signal can be converted for viewing on older TV sets. “Television is an important element in the lives of people... It's a central part of family living.”

Much work ahead

Bertus Bresler, who heads up Reunert's STB project, says SA has a long way to go before analogue signal can be turned off completely. He notes there are several aspects that must be dealt with as a matter of urgency if the International Telecommunications Union deadline is to be met, never mind the SADC time frame.

Moving to digital TV using the DVB-T2 standard will require more trials, he explains. So far, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and Sentech have been testing digital TV using the earlier version of the European standard, and only M-Net and etv have recently started trialling DVB-T2 in Soweto.

Bresler says a Digital Dzonga project office still needs to be set up, as SA urgently needs an authority to manage the move to digital broadcasting. At the moment, while there is an advisory council in place, this will not oversee the day-to-day issues of moving to digital, he adds.

In addition, notes Bresler, STB manufacturers also need to be provided with the software specification for the user interface, as government wants the boxes to all have the same look and feel. The specification has yet to be decided upon, he explains.

Another missing piece of the puzzle are STB controls, which will prevent boxes from being stolen in SA and used elsewhere, as well as allow for additional services on the decoders. Neither of these have yet been sorted out, and without them, manufacturers cannot finalise the STB design and start planning for production, comments Bresler.

In addition, says Bresler, no STBs should go into the market until a conformance laboratory is set up by the department to make sure all decoders being bought match the specifications. Another question that needs to be resolved is how government will get STBs to the poor, and how the subsidy scheme will work.

Reunert is already working on other DVB-T2 opportunities in the rest of Africa off the back of the SADC decision, and its DVB-T2 STB will be ready to go to market early next year, says Bresler.

Altech CEO Craig Venter notes: “The next step in the process is for the Department of Communications to engage with all stakeholders to ensure we meet the ITU's global deadline.” Altech has also been manufacturing DBV-T2-enabled decoders.

Thabo Lehlokoe, chairman of emerging STB manufacturer Seemahale, comments: “Let us hope that all the other outstanding issues will now be tackled with vigour and we will get on with the task at hand, preparing ourselves to manufacture the boxes.”

Wanting more

Lara Kantor, etv's group executive for regulatory strategy, adds implementing DVB-T2 will require additional investment in two main areas: on the transmission network, which is Sentech's responsibility; and on the decoder price, which is likely to be a few dollars more expensive. “However, we expect the STB price to come down quite quickly,” she points out.

Kantor adds there is a large of amount of work ahead for terrestrial broadcasters as a collective, as a new viewing platform needs to be launched and new channels will be made available.

The free-to-air TV service provider adds broadcasters need to develop channels and get approval for the new content from the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA).

Kantor says etv has been planning for the launch of digital TV, and with the confirmation of DVB-T2 as the standard for the migration, it is able to start implementing these plans.

“Implementation will include the buying and producing of programming for new channels, building the necessary studios and marketing the DTTV platform to South African viewers with a bouquet that will entice them to buy the STBs,” says Kantor.

However, ICASA will only take a decision as to how new spectrum will be allocated once the digital migration process is complete, and some spectrum freed up, says spokesman Paseka Maleka.

Sentech CEO Setumo Mohapi says the state entity covered 33% of SA's population as part of its rollout plan and aims to reach 60% at the end of March. The decision to use DVB-T2, and not its forerunner, will require upgrades to the network that has already been rolled out, explains Mohapi. However, the investment will not be drastic and the upgrade can run in parallel to the rest of the rollout, he adds.

Digital Video Broadcasting association chairman Philip Laven explains the prices of DVB-T2 STBs are reducing rapidly and can now be bought in the UK for £50, compared with £100 last March, as rollouts speed up and economies of scale come into play.

Dead air

Steven Ambrose, MD of WWW Strategy, says it is highly unlikely SA will meet its new deadline. He explains the key aspect is ensuring decoders get to all South Africans. “There are so many little devils in the detail now because of the sheer problem of getting seven million to eight million set-top boxes to every television-viewing home in the country.”

Ambrose says even if the project were being driven by commercial companies, it would still be a tall order to meet the deadline. He expects the deadline to be extended for a year or two. “Chances are the deadline is not going to be met, but at least we're on the right path now.”

However, says Ambrose, as the world is moving towards digital television, there is a dwindling pool of analogue transmission technology manufacturers, which will make it increasingly difficult for Sentech to maintain the aging infrastructure. As a result, South Africans could find themselves without any TV at all, even well before the deadline, he says.

See also