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Set-top box delivery still a ‘drop in the ocean’, says acting director-general

Read time 4min 40sec

Just over 600 000 set-top boxes (STBs) have been installed in qualifying households as part of government's switch to digital migration.

So said the communications ministry’s acting director-general (DG) Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, describing this as “certainly a drop in the ocean considering the number of households that still have to migrate nationwide”.

Jordan-Dyani added: “We are actually finalising Bethlehem, which is the last site in the Free State outside of the major cities. We have already commenced in Northern Cape.”

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), together with its entities, presented its annual performance plans for the 2021/2022 financial year to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications ahead of this week’s budget votes.

The DCDT is custodian of the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) project, while its entities Sentech and the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (USAASA) are charged with overseeing its rollout.

Detailing the progress so far, the acting DG said there have been some delays, noting the challenges with the STB installers. “The installers were disgruntled at one stage in relation to the issue of their payments – they said it was below the commercial rate.

“We were fortunately able to sit down with USAASA and we were able to then increase the installation fees.”

She added that service delivery protests in the Free State also posed a challenge. “This was just before the Freedom Day celebrations on 27 April. Unfortunately, we saw the destruction of our equipment, as well as the installers being blocked from entering particular municipalities.

“We’ve had to engage local authorities to try and resolve that, and I can report that particular matter, as well as the installer fees, has been resolved.

“We are lagging behind in terms of the depletion of stock in the current provinces because we don’t have the capacity in terms of installers. But we are hoping that the voucher system will allow us to catch-up. Once you’ve registered, the voucher system actually enables a direct-to-home purchase.”

Battle to switch-off

South Africa missed the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU’s) mid-2015 deadline to complete the full switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT). The ITU has called on nations to migrate to digital to allow radio frequency spectrum to be freed up for mobile broadband services.

Government has identified the BDM programme as a key project to improve the lives of South African citizens. The state is of the view that successful migration will empower it to bridge the digital divide, increase the competitiveness of the economy, create jobs and build social cohesion.

Furthermore, the switch to DTT will make radio frequency spectrum available, which is currently occupied by analogue services, for mobile broadband and broadcasting services.

The multibillion-rand project, however, has been beset with multiple challenges and controversies over the years.

Government has committed to subsidise digital migration resources for households that depend on social grants and those with an income of less than R3 200. These resources include STBs, which are required to convert digital broadcasting signals on analogue TV sets, as well as Integrated Digital TVs that have the DTT decoding capability built-in.

In his State of the Nation Address (SONA) at the start of the year, president Cyril Ramaphosa said after many delays, government would “begin the phased switch-off of the analogue TV transmitters from next month”.

He said at the time: “The completion of digital migration is vital to our ability to effectively harness the enormous opportunities that are presented by technological change that is going on around the world.

“It is anticipated that this process, which will be done province by province, will be completed by the end of March 2022.”

Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams switches off analogue television broadcast services in Bethlehem.(Image: Twitter)
Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams switches off analogue television broadcast services in Bethlehem.(Image: Twitter)

Following the president’s pronouncement at the SONA, the DCDT announced in March that it would begin a phased analogue switch-off in the Free State’s Ladybrand and surrounding towns.

The department explained that the switch-off in each province will be systematic and in phases, moving from one analogue transmitter coverage area to the other, until all district municipalities within the province are completed.

“The department is collaborating with provincial governments and district municipalities to recruit local installers of government-subsided decoders in order to accelerate the implementation of the broadcasting digital migration,” it said.

To commemorate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day yesterday, DCDT minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams switched off analogue television broadcast services in the Dihlabeng local municipality in Bethlehem, Free State.

According to the department, Bethlehem is the penultimate high-power analogue site to be switched off in the Free State, with Bloemfontein as the final one in the province.

It says: “So far, 16 analogue transmitters have been switched off since March 2021 in the Free State,” with an additional four low-power secondary sites linked to Bethlehem switched off on the day.

“The analogue switch-off in the Free State is continuing, simultaneously with the switch-off in the Northern Cape Province.”

The department’s proposed time lines for the digital migration project:

  • Free State – March 2021
  • Northern Cape – April 2021
  • North West – May 2021
  • Mpumalanga – May 2021
  • Eastern Cape – May 2021
  • KwaZulu-Natal – July 2021
  • Western Cape – November 2021
  • Limpopo – December 2021
  • Gauteng – January 2022
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