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Numbers don’t lie: Government’s slow crawl to digital TV

Read time 4min 10sec
There is still no end to SA’s fraught path to digital TV.
There is still no end to SA’s fraught path to digital TV.

Five years on, only 511 368 out of a targeted 4.7 million households have been connected to set-top boxes (STBs) as part of government's switch to digital migration.

This is according to the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, noting the households switched to digital terrestrial television (DTT) using government-subsidised STBs.

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

After missing the International Telecommunication Union’s June 2015 deadline for all countries to switch from analogue to DTT, government has been trying to speed-up SA’s Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme, with miniscule success.

The slow pace has the Portfolio Committee on Communications in Parliament concerned, with chairperson Boyce Maneli highlighting the project is already five years behind schedule.

“The issue of inadequate funding to implement fully the programme is of serious concern, especially because everyone knows that government does not have money. However, we would like to encourage government to ensure speedy implementation as well as engaging the private sector as part of the social compact to leverage available resources.”

As to where the digital TV decoders have been installed so far, the ministry says: “The installations were done across all provinces, save for Gauteng, which was only done as a pilot to test the network, and Eastern Cape, where installations were done as part of awareness campaigns.”

A battle of wills

In the past, the communications ministry, the custodian of the BDM programme, alluded to slow registration turnout for the government-subsidised STBs and limited funds for awareness campaigns as some of the issues hindering the flagship project.

However, the project has long been marred by missed timelines, legal battles over the standards of STBs, bribery and corruption allegations, as well as party politics.

In addition, 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.

There was also the issue with the STB tender. In 2015, a R4.3 billion tender was awarded to 26 companies to produce the decoders and associated electrical equipment for digital migration; 26 installation companies were also contracted. A year later, the communications ministry, led by former communications minister Faith Muthambi, placed the first order for 1.5 million STBs with USAASA.

The Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (USAASA) selected CZ Electronics, BUA Africa and Leratadima Marketing Solutions to kick-start production of the 1.5 million order, with each company receiving a purchasing order (PO) for 500 000 decoders from USAASA.

In terms of the PO, BUA Africa was contracted to manufacture the direct-to-home decoders, while Leratadima and CZ Electronics were contracted to manufacture DTT set-top boxes.

Former communications minister Faith Muthambi during one of the department’s digital migration campaigns. [Photo source: GCIS]
Former communications minister Faith Muthambi during one of the department’s digital migration campaigns. [Photo source: GCIS]

Delivery model switcheroo

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

This followed the adoption of a revised rollout model in October 2018, while the department was under the leadership of then communications minister Nomvula Mokonyane.

Where USAASA was charged with managing the installation of the decoders, government’s new model saysdecoder installers should be appointed at local municipality level.

Speaking at a media briefing last year, minister Stella 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 listed the Northern Cape, North West and Free State as the provinces that have been prioritised.

According to Maneli, Parliament’s committee has impressed upon the department to develop a timeline of key milestones that need to be reached before the analogue switch-off target of 2021, as set out by Cabinet. “The timeline should then be presented to the committee as well as the estimated budget to complete the entire migration programme.”

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.

The country's switch to DTT will also make radio frequency spectrum available, which is currently occupied by analogue services, for mobile broadband and broadcasting services.

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