Ndabeni-Abrahams says digital migration target still within reach

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Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has tried to allay industry fears that SA’s years-long delayed digital migration project could face further delays, saying government is “committed” to sticking to the analogue switch-off target of 2021.

Ndabeni-Abrahams was responding to a report that the project’s current timeframe may be pushed beyond the March 2021 deadline, throwing a spanner in the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (ICASA’s) plans to license high-demand spectrum.

ICASA recently indicated plans to complete the auction of the much-needed spectrum by no later than 31 March 2021. Among the spectrum frequencies it wants to auction are the 700MHz and 800MHz bands, which are currently occupied by the much-delayed digital migration.

The minister told ITWeb that she will be meeting with ICASA to discuss potential interventions to mitigate challenges and for the authority to “say for certain when they will be ready to do the spectrum licensing”.

“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%.”

Overly ambitious?

South Africa missed the International Telecommunication Union's mid-2015 deadline to complete the full switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT). The multibillion-rand DTT project has been beset with continual controversies, bogging down the process even further.

Furthermore, the department has undergone numerous leadership changes, with five different ministers in five years, each coming with their own vision of how to deliver the project.

In 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 set-top boxes (STBs) had been installed in qualifying households during the course of rolling out the project.

Now, with the March 2021 deadline fast approaching, the department and its entities are looking to have 860 000 STBs, earmarked for three provinces, installed in qualifying households within the next six months or so.

The South African government has committed to supplying digital migration resources to households that depend on social grants and those with an income of less than R3 200.The STBs are required to convert digital broadcasting signals on analogue TV sets.

In an effort aimed at hurrying-up the country’s migration project, Cabinet last December approved another delivery model.

Where the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa was charged with managing the installation of the decoders, government’s new model says decoder installers should be appointed at local municipality level.

Speaking at a media briefing last year, Ndabeni-Abrahams said: “Cabinet approved the delivery model that encompasses direct appointment of local decoder installers that are qualified and accredited.

“The second phase thereof will include the rollout of IDTVs; in order to ensure the success of the project, the department is exploring alternative funding options.”

She also indicated the Northern Cape, North West and Free State as the provinces that have been prioritised.

The crucial meet-up

When asked to comment about ICASA’s announced plans to auction spectrum by March next year, Ndabeni-Abrahams said the regulator needs to address her first before she can indicate her support.

“Right now, I can't say much about whether we support or not. We are concerned as government of course...we are concerned that the timelines are not met although we are appreciative of the challenges due to COVID-19, but I can only speak with authority after I have met them.

“I’ve got to wait for the authority because the law stipulates what it must follow and must do. I can't be putting pressure on them, that is why I said I’m going to wait for them...and get to understand if they can do it earlier or earlier than the deadline that has been prepared.

“We are in a rush as the entire country to see the spectrum released; not only for ourselves or to meet targets but because of the value-chain that we want our people to benefit from, but the law is the law.

“The Electronic Communications Act does define the processes the authority needs to follow and we shouldn't be in a rush that we illegitimise that process, and we find them going to court for litigation in terms of not following processes. That is why it is important for me to sit down with them and hear from them,” she concludes.

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