South Africa’s digital switchover remains in limbo

South Africa’s move from analogue to digital television is not running as smoothly as hoped, with e.tv launching a high court action against Communications Minister Dina Pule which could see the switchover delayed even further.

Pule took the decision in May to appoint state-owned Sentech to manage the decoder controls in the national switchover. This decision was made despite an earlier agreement whereby e.tv and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) would handle the decoder controls.

These two organisations are now taking the Minister to court, claiming that her decision was illegal and she did not have the authority to single-handedly make such an appointment, which will supposedly cause e.tv and SABC significant financial detriment as the switch takes place.

The detriment will mainly be caused by the fact that Sentech will be able to set the prices for access to the system – expected by e.tv and SABC to be a lot higher than if they ran the controls themselves.

E.tv claims quality of programme provision will also suffer, as high-definition content providers – concerned with the upmost security – are unlikely to trust Semtech with the broadcasting of their programmes after they were found guilty in February of not using sufficient encryption on programmes broadcast, leading to people in Botswana effectively being able to watch SABC-broadcast programmes.

Will this court case delay South Africa’s digital switchover further?

The answer is most likely, yes. While e.tv has urged the court to hear the case by October 16, it is unlikely that a decision will be made by then, while decoders are unlikely to be manufactured and distributed in time.

However, the question really is, how desirable is the switch-over in reality, and will the change from analogue to digital really benefit the South African population?

p>Digital television is more reliable than analogue when it comes to transmitting signals over a longer distance, with digital barely susceptible to electromagnetic interference. Yet analogue signal allows for large amounts of data to be transmitted at a much lower cost, thanks to the fact that it uses much less bandwidth than digital signal. Digital requires much greater bandwidth – which in South Africa currently may cause issues. Furthermore, more bandwidth means more processing systems, which means higher costs.

The cost of the decoders is another obstacle. For digital transmission, each television device requires a set-top box. Thus if there are multiple sets hoping to watch multiple channels in one home, multiple decoders will be required, significantly ramping up the cost to individual television users.

While Pule’s team assures television viewers that Sentech decoders will be government subsidised, it would also seem that e.tv will have to provide its own decoders or pay extra fees to use Sentech’s system – driving up costs. This does not bode well for a large segment of South Africa’s society – low income television users will immediately face higher costs should they wish to opt for e.tv and SABC broadcasts.

Some television stations have already felt the negative impact of the switchover to digital television. The Cape Town community TV station reported losses of over 600,000 viewers after being forced by ICASA to move to a higher-frequency channel in preparation for the switch. However, at this frequency, transmission is weak and declines profusely over distance, causing the channel to be largely unavailable to a significant chunk of the station’s viewing audience.

While the switchover in principle may have benefits to the whole of South Africa’s society, it is clear that there remain a number of issues to be addressed. While the government gets on with dealing with the problems, audiences remain in a state of uncertainty, broadcasters resort to court battles in an effort to stave off extra costs, and smaller community television stations are losing their clientele as changes are made to television systems.

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