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Govt readies ‘aggressive’ plan to expedite digital migration

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Communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.
Communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.

Government plans to take an “aggressive” approach to fast-track the much-delayed digital migration project.

This is according to communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, responding to Cabinet’s statement on the broadcasting digital migration (BDM) programme.

According to the statement: “Cabinet approved the revised integrated analogue switch-off implementation plan, which is a schedule to complete the remaining areas by March 2022.”

Furthermore: “Cabinet endorsed the collaborative approach adopted towards fast-tracking the finalisation of the migration of the whole country from analogue to digital platforms.”

Noting the statement, Ntshavheni said she is chairing a project steering committee on digital migration, adding that an announcement will be made in the coming days.

“I have no new date for the analogue switch-off; I have a catch-up date, which was announced by the president at the SONA 2021,” she states. “We are pushing a very aggressive programme to make sure we migrate.”

South Africa has been trying to migrate from analogue to digital TV for over a decade. However, the analogue switch-off process has been beset by numerous challenges and controversies over the years, bogging down the process even further.

Although it committed to the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU's) call for all nations to switch to digital terrestrial television, SA missed the mid-2015 deadline to complete the full switchover. The ITU called on nations to migrate to digital to allow radio frequency spectrum to be freed up for mobile broadband services.

To ensure indigent households are not left behind, government has committed to subsidise the digital migration resources that are required. These resources include set-top boxes (STBs), which are required to convert digital broadcasting signals on analogue TV sets.

In order to receive the STBS, qualifying households are required to register for these devices at their nearest SA Post Office (SAPO) branch.

Minister Ntshavheni said government opened registrations for STBs over seven years ago, and only 1.3 million indigent households have registered to receive their government-subsidised decoders, according to stats from SAPO and the department.

As a result, the upcoming announcement is geared towards increasing registration numbers to speed-up the migration process.

She explained that SA did not get an exemption for the extension of the migration period from the 2015 deadline. “We are still on the unprotected frequencies. If any of the neighbouring countries were to go and say ‘ITU we want to use your spectrum; tell South Africa to switch’, we’ll have to switch off. If we don’t switch off, the ITU will switch us off – they’ve got that capability.”

For government, the BDM programme is key to improving the lives of South Africans. 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-off will make radio frequency spectrum available, which is currently occupied by analogue services, for mobile broadband and broadcasting services.

Similarly, Ntshavheni has indicated digital migration is paramount to releasing the spectrum dividend, and is the fastest and cheapest way to connect SA. “We are very aggressive on the digital migration programme because we want to make sure spectrum is released.

“Myself and the regulator [ICASA] are aggressively pushing for the spectrum to be released,” she says, noting work on the spectrum process is ongoing and government is trying to move what is possible.

Today, ICASA set a March 2022 deadline for the licensing of the International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum, also known as high-demand spectrum, and the wireless open access network.

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