USAASA suspends officials amid digital migration investigation

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Six officials from the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) have been suspended in relation to suspected irregularities concerning the digital migration project.

This information was revealed by communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, while providing a progress report on her department’s entities yesterday.

Troubled USAASA has been charged with the procurement of the digital migration set-top boxes (STBs).

Ndabeni-Abrahams stated the officials were suspended as a result of investigations conducted by the agency in relation to alleged corrupt activities that link to the STBs. “We hope that USAASA has a strong case and will follow the legal processes in undertaking whatever decisions and actions that they need to.”

According to USAASA, the officials were placed on precautionary suspension on 2 October.

It added that the said staff members had not yet been charged due to pending further investigation.

The suspension, says the agency, is based on a preliminary investigation in relation to irregularities regarding the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) inventory management and certain payment thereof.

When pressed for further information, USAASA said it cannot provide more details on the matter until the investigation and possible disciplinary processes and/or clearing the said employees are concluded. “The agency has a business continuity plan in place that is currently being implemented.”

Taking the lead

While it’s been identified as a key project to bridge the digital divide, the state’s multibillion-rand BDM programme has been beset with continual controversies, which have bogged down the process even further.

South Africa missed the International Telecommunication Union's mid-2015 deadline to complete the full switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television.

In September, a report surfaced indicating the country’s BDM programme may be delayed beyond 2021. However, Ndabeni-Abrahams said government will stick to the analogue switch-off target of 2021.

Yesterday, she revealed that work has commenced with Sentech, which has been appointed as the project manager.

“We are still sticking to our guns to say the deadline for digital migration is December 2021 – we have to make sure people are migrated for both those that are being subsidised and those not subsidised.

“We call upon the industry as we have engaged with them and they have committed to supporting these calls. Even though we may be putting deadlines, but if the industry is not ready then these deadlines will not be met – we do not produce IDTVs, neither do we produce installers or set-top boxes.

“This is an opportunity for our industry to make sure as ICASA and SABS finalise their standards as requested by the industry, they will fast-track the process of manufacturing these devices.

“We are cognisant that any delay in the digital migration will cost us in regards to spectrum. The spectrum that is being occupied by the broadcasters, the 700MHz, is what the telcos’ industry requires in order to deploy their infrastructure accordingly.

“We are working hand-in-hand with our industry to say where we can partner and collaborate to make sure digital migration becomes a success.”

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