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Litigation threatens to further derail SA’s delayed digital migration

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Given South Africa’s resources, the country should have led the African continent’s digital migration process.

So said deputy communications minister Philly Mapulane this morning, acknowledging the country’s lateness in the switch from analogue transmission to digital, unlike its African counterparts.

“The entire continent has migrated, and we are the last to migrate as a country,” he said.

Mapulane and the ministry’s delegation, together with its entities, briefed Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications on the progress made in implementing the country’s Broadcast Digital Migration (BDM) programme.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) is custodian of the BDM programme, and charged with overseeing its rollout.

After missing the International Telecommunication Union-mandated June 2015 migration deadline, SA is playing catch-up. Additionally, the country’s analogue switch-off process has been hampered by a series of missteps, including controversies and leadership changes that delayed the process.

SA’s digital migration is important because it will allow for the spectrum dividend occupied by the analogue signals to be freed up for mobile broadband services.

To ensure indigent households are not left behind, government has committed to subsidise digital migration resources for those households with an income of R3 500 per month or less. Qualifying households are required to register for these devices at their nearest SA Post Office branch.

In his State of the Nation Address at the start of the year, president Cyril Ramaphosa pronounced that the country should be migrated by 31 March 2022, after many delays.

Mapulane stated that in response to the president’s pronouncement, the communications department developed a revised BDM plan, which has been approved by Cabinet.

“We are busy with the implementation of the plan,” he told MPs. “The plan is the revised integrated analogue switch-off.”

Mapulane explained the department is moving ahead with the analogue switch-off, having started in the Free State. “In the Free State, the entire province has been switched-off. We are moving to the Northern Cape, and from the Northern Cape, we’ll be moving to the North West to switch-off the analogue [TV] transmitters as part of the implementation of the BDM.

“We are committed to make sure that come next year March, the country would have migrated as we’ve got unprotected frequencies as it is now.”

Legal upheaval

Commenting on possible risks that might hinder the successful completion of the digital migration project, Mapulane pointed to the litigation with one of the stakeholders the department is currently dealing with.

“We are exchanging documents now, and hope that it will not be necessary for the litigation to continue,” he stated.

“[We hope] that we avoid a situation where the courts will pronounce on this matter, which is basically a policy issue by the state.”

While the deputy minister did not refer to the stakeholder by name, broadcaster eMedia last month decided to throw a spanner in the department’s planned digital TV migration process.

eMedia, the parent company of Etv and Openview, believes the move to switch off analogue signals in March 2022 will kill the businesses of free-to-air broadcasters. Resultantly, it is looking to the courts to challenge government’s plan.

Speaking on eMedia’s eNCA news channel, Khalik Sherrif, CEO of eMedia Holdings, said the broadcaster is not an agreeing partner to the DCDT’s move to switch off analogue signals in March.

However, he noted the company is not against the move to digital TV, but the timeframe given is not feasible for free-to-air broadcasters to stay afloat.

“We are not agreeing to the plan because we don’t believe it’s achievable at all. We are, of course, of the opinion that analogue switch-off must happen. Absolutely, it must happen, but the way it is being rushed now, it is absolutely unachievable to do this by March 2022.”

Sherrif cited the global chip shortage, as well as the logistical challenges in installing set-top boxes as some of the challenges the mooted expedited digital TV migration deadline will encounter.

Mapulane concluded: “There is still hope that the parties will find each other, so that we avoid the risks that get to be associated with the litigation – and make sure that the project is successfully implemented by March next year.”

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