Digital migration creeps forward

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Twenty five thousand low-income households in the Northern Cape province have migrated from the analogue broadcasting system and connected to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

The Department of Communications (DOC) revealed this information in a parliamentary reply to the Democratic Alliance's question, detailing progress of the digital migration project in that province.

A further 21 000 households receive digital signal via satellite, according to the response.

However, these numbers pale in comparison to the total TV-owning households that government has promised to support as a way to facilitate the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme.

The South African government has committed to subsidise some five million qualifying households with digital migration products, including free set-top boxes (STBs).

The STBs are essential for the digital migration process as they are required to convert digital broadcasting signals on analogue TV sets. The decoders allow consumers to receive DTT without having to buy a new digital TV.

Problematic criteria

The government criteria for free digital TV decoders has previously been criticised for the potential to isolate millions in the missing middle income group from accessing shows promised by DTT.

Missing middle households earn just above the stipulated benchmark for government-subsidised STBs but less than R6 500. These households will have to fend for themselves or risk being cut off from the free TV services they have come to depend on.

The SOS Coalition, the organisation interested in public service broadcasting, is of the view that STBs must be made available to every household in the country that will need a decoder to continue receiving TV signals after SA switches to DTT.

In addition, the state has also not provided insight into the affordability of the digital migration decoders for those households that will need to continue to watch free-to-air programmes without satellite TV.

Long road to nowhere

South Africa's road to digital migration has been one bumpy ride, characterised by miniscule progress and shifting deadlines along the way.

Further, the DOC, the custodian of the country's digital migration process, has undergone numerous leadership changes, with five different ministers in the space of two years.

In 2006, SA, along with other countries, committed to the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU's) June 2015 deadline for all countries to switch from analogue to DTT. The ITU has called on nations to migrate to digital to allow radio frequency spectrum to be freed up for mobile broadband services.

However, the country missed the ITU's deadline, and is now playing catch-up.

The DOC has prioritised registration and installation of STBs in border-lying areas across the country. These include the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) area in the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, Free State and Limpopo, where analogue causes the greatest interference.

In 2016, the department switched off the first analogue TV transmitters in the Northern Cape's SKA area.

Responding to the Democratic Alliance's question, the ministry noted 18 analogue transmitters have been switched off in the Northern Cape.

The Free State's migration prospects have also been on the back burner. The DOC and Free State government targeted to switch-over to DTT by 31 December 2018, but that deadline was missed.

At the time, the DOC attributed the delay "to overwhelming demand for government-subsidised decoders for qualifying TV-viewing households in the Free State". As result, the department pushed the Free State's switch-over to end February to give residents a grace period to continue registering for STBs.

In April, deputy communications minister, Pinky Kekana, led a two-day inspection visit to identify and resolve any possible challenges in the implementation of the BDM programme in the Free State.

In the Free State, over 75% households have registered for free STBs, the department's spokesperson previously revealed.

The DOC is targeting July 2020 as the "official deadline" for the country to complete digital migration.

Spectrum aspirations

Government has identified the BDM programme as a key project to improve the lives of South African citizens. The state is of the view that successful migration will empower it to bridge the digital divide, increase the competitiveness of the economy, create jobs and build social cohesion.

When the country switches to DTT, it will make radio frequency spectrum available, which is currently occupied by analogue services for other broadband and broadcasting services. Mobile operators are eager to see the full implementation of the project, as this will unlock the necessary spectrum they have long been calling for.

Kekana previously stated: "Government is determined to complete this project speedily. This is in line with our priority to ensure we are in a position to release the much-needed digital dividend spectrum."

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