OPINION: Government may look active, but SA is unlikely to meet digital deadline

As South Africa ramps up efforts to be seen to be progressing on the route to digital migration, the prevalent public attitude remains that the 2015 deadline will not be met.

When the country signed an agreement with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2006, pledging to implement the transition by June 2015, nine years seemed more than sufficient to implement the switch from analogue to digital. Indeed, South Africa initially imposed upon itself even more stringent deadlines – digital signal was due to be switched on in November 2008, and analogue to be switched off in November 2011.

These dates were not met.

The country’s three-phased transition to digital transmission was officially launched on October 3 this year, with Communications Minister Dina Pule unveiling phase one of the launch – the proof of concept stage – in the Northern Cape. The aim of this stage is to show that the second generation digital video broadcast transmission (DVB-T2) standard chosen for South Africa’s migration is able to provide sufficient signal for most rural areas to get coverage.

The Department of Communications (DoC) confirmed in a recent press release that the commercial switch-on of digital television signal will occur in December of this year. The commercial launch will constitute phase two of the roll-out.

The DoC claims that the state-owned Sentech already has in place 61 per cent digital terrestrial television (DTT) coverage in preparation for the commercial launch, with the company on track to achieve 80 per cent coverage by March 2013, and 88 per cent by December 2013. The remaining 12 per cent of the population will be provided with television connection via satellite, not DTT.

The final phase of the migration involves the switch-off of analogue signal in the country – scheduled for December 2013.

Aside from the arguable technical benefits of switching to digital transmission, the DoC has also been waxing lyrical about the huge economic benefits to the country of the digital migration, in particular in terms of job creation. According to DoC estimates, 800 jobs will be created in the manufacturing of set-top boxes, while 10,000 youths will be provided with installation and maintenance training and work. Overall, the DoC claims that at least 24,000 jobs will appear in the 12 months following digital migration.

Apparently, everything is in place for the migration. So why the scepticism?

Well, firstly, the South African government has already showed itself to be over-ambitious and unreliable in terms of sticking to deadlines – having originally set the stage three analogue switch-off date for November 2011.

In October 2012, the country has only just managed to launch phase one of the migration – and to boot, in an area that boasts significant potential challenges given the highly-sensitive low-frequency world-class telescope being constructed in the Northern Cape. Who knows what difficulties will arise through signal interference in the area? The government certainly doesn’t – that is the reason for having a phase one of roll-out. So the potential for delay at this early stage is great.

Secondly, given the fact that Communications Minister Dina Pule is currently being sued by e.tv due to the Minister’s sudden decision to revoke organisation and management of the digital decoder system from e.tv and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), and hand it to state-owned Sentech. The content provider alleges that the power to make such a decision is not in the Minister’s remit, and that further, placing control of the decoder system with Sentech will hike prices for broadcasters, and lower the quality of content for users (as certain content providers refuse to provide content for Sentech-secured transmission).

Whatever the outcome of the suit, it is highly unlikely that the government and the eventual party charged with implementing a decoding system will be able to plan, and manufacture the necessary set-top boxes, before the December 2013 analogue switch-off date. Nor will the Postal Service be able to distribute the equipment nationwide in such a short time-frame. These delays in turn will push back the whole migration time-frame.

As such, while the government is looking active, there is still a plethora of things that could – and probably will – delay the digital migration in South Africa.

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