USAASA denies spending R1.8bn on digital TV project

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USAASA executive caretaker Basil Ford.
USAASA executive caretaker Basil Ford.

State-owned entity (SOE) the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) has refuted media reports that it has spent R1.8 billion on the pending procurement of the Integrated Digital Television (IDTV) project.

USAASA, the agency responsible for overseeing government’s multibillion-rand digital migration project, issued a statement yesterday after IOL reported this week that communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is at the centre of a R1.8 billion scandal, where funds were sourced from National Treasury in early March to finance a digital terrestrial television (DTT) project through USAASA which has still not materialised.

The project was supposed to benefit Grade 12 pupils at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but has yet to happen, says the report.

USAASA is currently under the administration of caretaker Basil Ford, who was appointed by Ndabeni-Abrahams in January.

When the IDTV tender was advertised, USAASA said without the TVs, grade 12s will not benefit from efforts to make learning support available on broadcast services during the COVID-19 disaster.

Quoting an unnamed source, IOL also reported that the minister wanted the board to appoint signal distributor Sentech to run the digital migration and broadband rollout, respectively, which USAASA would have had to bankroll as it has done with the SA Post Office (SAPO) distribution of DTT set-top boxes (STBs), costing USAASA millions.

However, in response, the SOE says: “To date, USAASA can confirm it has not spent R1.8 billion on the IDTV project. USAASA can also confirm Sentech was never approached for its appointment for the R1.8 billion project.

“USAASA would like to state that only R242 million was approved to be retained by the agency for the COVID-19 relief effort to provide beneficiary households with Grade 12 learners with IDTVs.”

It adds USAASA is still finalising an internal procurement process for IDTVs, and as such, it cannot disclose further details.

However, it notes, information will be released as soon as the process is concluded.

“Furthermore, USAASA has no knowledge of any channelling of the IDTV tender by individuals in the agency.

“We would like to also clarify that phase two of the Broadcasting Digital Migration project is per the revised model that was approved by Cabinet in December 2019. This phase involves the issuing of vouchers to the rest of the indigent households that will not be covered in phase one.

“Lastly, USAASA would like to correct the misconception that STBs stored in the SAPO warehouse are ‘gathering dust’. The stock will be depleted in the coming months, after which the project will then move into the second phase which entails a subsidised voucher system.”

In March, ITWeb reported USAASA was looking to have the total 860 000 digital migration STBs, earmarked for three provinces, installed in those qualifying households by March 2021.

This deadline came as the agency prioritised clearing the stock of the government-subsidised STBs, which are stored in SAPO warehouses at a cost of R5.1 million a month.

Now the SOE says the broadcasting digital migration project is steaming ahead, with signal distributor Sentech appointed by USAASA to project-manage the installation of subsidised STBs.

“The agency remains committed to fulfilling its mandate to support and supply needy households with access to broadcasting services.”

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