South Africa’s not-so-great digital migration trek plods on

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Communications and digital technologies minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications and digital technologies minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Some 3.5 million South African households still need to make the switch from analogue to digital TV as part of government’s Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme.

This, as the more than decade-long project’s implementation has moved at a glacial pace.

Speaking at last week’s launch of the South African Mobile Devices Distributors and Repairers Association, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said her department is driving the country’s digital migration project, noting “3.5 million households that need to be migrated”.

Ndabeni-Abrahams delivered her keynote address under the topic of “problem-solving using digital technologies”.

“In South Africa alone, we have about 11 million students – I’m talking about the DBE [Department of Basic Education] sector – the 11 million learners should have access to digital technologies.

“On top of that, as the department, we are driving the programme of digital migration wherein we still have 3.5 million households that need to be migrated and therefore offer the devices that we are talking about.”

Moving target

The analogue switch-off process has faced numerous challenges over the years, with controversies and department leadership changes bogging down the process even further.

Although SA committed to the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU's) call for all nations to switch to DTT, the country missed the June 2015 deadline to complete the full switchover. 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 South African 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 set-top boxes (STBs), which are required to convert digital broadcasting signals on analogue TV sets, as well as Integrated Digital TVs (IDTVs)

Last February, Ndabeni-Abrahams’s department, which is the custodian of the DTT project, told Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications that just over 500 000 migration STBs had been installed in qualifying households during the course of rolling out the project.

Despite a report that the implementation of the project may be pushed beyond March 2021, last September, the minister told ITWeb that government is “committed” to sticking to the analogue switch-off target of 2021.

“Key to this is the rollout of the digital migration process, which we are fast-tracking and want to make sure that by March 2021, we’ve made progress, even if we have not migrated all but we should have 70%,” she said at the time.

STB crunch-time

In an interview with the SABC’s Lesedi FM last week, Ndabeni-Abrahams stated that people who do not have IDTVs or satellite dishes are expected to get the STBs.

“We urge everyone to make sure they have access to that digital TV because at the centre of it all is just people having digital TV. You can get a set-top box or you can get the real IDTV.”

She warned there are people selling smart TVs that are not smart. “We've become a dumping place as South Africa. People sell analogue TVs and they still lie to us, which is why we continue with set-top boxes in order to make sure there will be that transfer from analogue TV to the digital box.”

Commenting on aspirations for the SABC, the minister said they want to increase the number of channels to 16, once the migration to the DTT platform happens.

“We are going digital in terms of the digital migration. We do expect those that earn about R3 000 in their households to go to the post office and register so that they can get the boxes because we have to migrate faster and quicker.

“When we migrate, we are able to create more channels for SABC. We need to have our own educational channel, we need to have our sport channel and health channel.

“COVID has really shown us that children cannot be able to go to school. Can you imagine if the SABC had an educational channel whereby students without access to data can tune into their public broadcaster, which would have access to teachers in studio who will teach them the same content that they learn at school,” she concluded.

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