Finally, SA is going digital

Read time 5min 30sec

Communications minister Roy Padayachie this morning announced Cabinet has endorsed a Southern African Development Community (SADC) decision to use the European DVB-T2 digital standard to migrate from analogue broadcast.

However, with just two years before the old signal will be turned off, there are still many decisions that must be taken, and state entities will have to ramp up quickly to be ready in time.

Padayachie's announcement comes more than five years after SA first started down the road towards switching over to digital TV, using the European DVB-T standard. This process stalled last year when former communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda initiated a review process, undertaking to investigate the use of the Brazilian upgrade to the Japanese ISDB-T standard.

The announcement ends months of speculation around which standard would be used and comes shortly after the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronics Components (Namec) said it wanted the debate started from scratch.

Cabinet's decision was made at its last meeting in December, but Padayachie only this morning confirmed it, wanting to first consult with industry stakeholders. He said he didn't want to make an announcement until the new year, as SA was winding down for the traditional festive season break.

Much to be done

Padayachie noted that the decision represented “an important step in the process of the digital revolution we want to make in this country”.

The minister hopes digital migration will also create a formidable electronic manufacturing sector that can produce set-top boxes for the 130 million people living in the SADC region. The decoders will be required to turn digital signal back into analogue for viewing on older televisions.

Yet, before SA can turn on digital television, there are several aspects that first need to be finalised. Among these is an upgrade to Sentech's transmission network, and the completion of a strategy for the manufacturing sector that aims to aid emerging electronics manufacturers take advantage of digital migration.

In addition, new standards for DVB-T2 need to be signed off by the SA Bureau of Standards, and the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) will have to review its regulations.

Padayachie adds that the issues around subsidising set-top boxes still need to be finalised. He was unable to quantify how much government would pay out to ensure the poorest of the poor would be able to continue watching television when analogue is turned off, nor how this would work, as discussions are still under way.

Government initially earmarked R2.45 billion to subsidise set-top boxes for the poorest households.

Sentech CEO Setumo Mohapi says Sentech has already “lit up” 33% of SA's population as part of its rollout plan and aims to be at 60% by March. However, the decision to use DVB-T2, and not its forerunner, means there are certain aspects of the new network that will require upgrading, he says.

Mohapi explains these will not require drastic investment, and the upgrade will form part of its continued rollout plan as the processes will work in parallel.

Digital dividend

Moving to digital television comes with a range of benefits, says Padayachie. He explains that, although it will cost more to move to DVB-T2 than its forerunner, the longer term will be worth it.

DVB-T2 is 50% more efficient when it comes to using spectrum and technically better than either DVB-T or ISDB-T, says Padayachie. As a result, instead of only eight to 10 channels in one multiplex, viewers can receive between 12 and 15 channels.

In addition, the image will be clearer, and both standard and high-definition channels can be sent out on one multiplex, along with a mobile channel for handheld devices. Moving to digital television also frees up spectrum as it is much more efficient than analogue, which means spare frequency can be used for broadband.

ICASA chairman Stephen Mncube says the regulator had embarked on a frequency distribution plan, which was halted. The regulator is now in talks with international experts to see how best use can be made of the frequency that will be freed up through the move to digital television.

Acting DG Harold Wesso says the move to digital television opens up many opportunities, and will act as a catalyst to grow a television content production industry, as the move to digital television will spur a requirement for more content. “Are we going to import that content, or will we develop it ourselves?”

Long time coming

SA's move to digital TV, which can kick off in earnest now that a decision has been made as to which standard to use, has been years in the making.

More than five years ago, government set up a Digital Migration Working Group, which made its recommendations to the then communications minister, the late Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, in 2006. That year, Cabinet elected to implement digital TV based on the widely-used European DVB-T standard.

In 2007, Matsepe-Casaburri set two ambitious deadlines: November 2008 to turn on digital TV broadcasting, and November 2011 to turn off the analogue signal. In November 2008, South African broadcasters started piloting digital TV, using DVB-T.

In anticipation of moving to digital TV, Sentech started rolling out transmitters and set-top box (STB) manufacturers also geared up in anticipation of the need to manufacture at least 10 million decoders for the local market.

However, the entire process stalled in the first half of last year, when the Department of Communications started investigating the use of the Brazilian upgrade of the obscure Japanese ISDB-T standard - a move that angered the industry, which is estimated to have spent at least R700 million gearing up for switchover.

Government's decision to relook at its initial decision put several smaller manufacturers in jeopardy, and Altech CEO Craig Venter threatened to sue government if it implemented ISDB-T.

In November, SADC communications ministers elected to use DVB-T2 as the digital standard for migration from analogue broadcasting. The region set November 2013 as a deadline to turn off the old format signal.

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