Another review of digital TV delivery model in the works

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Less than a year after government approved a revised delivery model to implement the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme, it is going back to the drawing board to “fast-track” SA's much-delayed move to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

SA missed the June 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for countries to complete the full 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.

Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams vaguely indicated a potentially new model in her budget vote speech last week. 

She said: “Within 90 days, the department will present the reviewed broadcasting digital migration delivery model in order to enable the swift release of the high-demand spectrum needed for the rollout of broadband and effective DTT migration.”

ITWeb asked the communications and digital technologies ministry for clarity, but it had not responded by the time of publication.

Going nowhere slowly

South Africa’s switch from analogue to DTT has been on the back foot for years now, plagued by controversies that have further bogged down the process.

Ndabeni-Abrahams’s department, which is facilitating the BDM programme, has in the past made numerous promises aimed at prioritising the flagship project. However, there has been little evidence that points to any significant progress in this regard.

Last year, the communications ministry, under the leadership of former minister Nomvula Makonyane, announced government will no longer be involved in the procurement of set-top boxes (STBs), warehousing, transportation and installation of devices.

During her tenure, Makonyane was vocal about her intentions to shelve the Universal Services and Access Agency of SA’s (USAASA’s) role in the BDM project and procurement of devices.

The former minister’s reasoning to forgo USAASA was that she did not want to be dragged into the legal disputes involving the agency.

In October 2018, Makonyane said Cabinet had approved a revised delivery model on implementation of the BDM project. This, she said, is to provide SA with headway towards the completion of the project in a manner that is inclusive, affordable and efficient, and reduces risk to government.

The statement said: "The model adopts a market- or retail-driven approach through collaboration and partnerships with the private sector and industry. This will push digital viewership migration to the 85% threshold and beyond, towards switching off all analogue broadcasts."

In light of the revised digital migration delivery model, Mokonyane said the projection is to complete the BDM project by July 2020, following a phased approach.

The migration date has been moved numerous times, currently with no clear deadline from the incumbent leadership as to when the country will complete the digital migration journey.

Set-top box fumble

Perhaps the biggest fumble in the digital migration project has been the management and procurement of the digital migration decoders, which has been marred by legal battles, bribery, policy changes and corruption allegations, to name but a few.

As part of implementation of the BDM programme, government promised to supply free STBs to over five million households that depend on social grants and those with an income of less than R3 200 per month. The STBs are required to convert digital broadcasting signals on analogue TV sets.

In 2015, a R4.3 billion tender was awarded to 26 companies to produce the STBs and associated electrical equipment for digital migration; 26 installation companies were also contracted. A year later, the communications ministry, led by former communications minister Faith Muthambi, placed the first order for 1.5 million STBs with USAASA.

USAASA selected CZ Electronics, BUA Africa and Leratadima Marketing Solutions to kick-start production of the 1.5 million order, with each company receiving a purchasing order for 500 000 decoders.

To date, CZ Electronics is the only manufacturer to deliver the complete order of 500 000 DTT STBs.

Although BUA Africa has only managed 45 092 decoders, CEO Thulani Ngesi confirmed his company is in the process of completing the order.

Earlier this month, ITWeb reported that Leratadima has been placed into liquidation. The company is finalising a process to deliver the outstanding STBs.

Keep it simple

The ICT SMME Chamber advises the minister to keep it simple on DTT this time around and just implement the BDM policy.

It highlights that government has bungled the digital migration programme, with big and small businesses that invested in electronics manufacturing going under.

“The BDM policy promised South Africans a great deal; including multiple television channels for the public broadcaster, e-government services, and a revival of the electronics manufacturing industry with the manufacturing of decoders as a critical step thereto.

“The BDM policy, like many others, did not see the light of day as South Africa keeps its tag of creating the best policies only to dither at implementing them. The advent of Industry 4.0 renders these ideals more relevant today than they were in 2008.”

The ICT SMME Chamber stresses SA’s economy will not sustain any further indecision, pointing out it needs bold leadership.

“SMMEs urge minister Ndabeni-Abrahams to lead us out of the economic quagmire and lead us boldly as we all march together in growing the economy and driving a digital society to sustain our country through the fourth industrial revolution.”

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