In a highly embarrassing failure of the South African government, the country today fails to meet the internationally agreed to deadline of 17 June to switch off analogue TV signals.
With numerous false starts, empty promises, mired in litigation and with a lack of leadership at the department of communications over the better part of half a decade, the South African government has not even started the commercial switch-on process of digital terrestrial television (DTT).
This commercial dual illumination period of the process known as digital migration – during which South African TV viewers will have to fork out around R700 to R800 for a locally manufactured set-top box (STB) just to keep watching free-to-air TV channels like the SABC and e.tv – is expected to take between four and five years to complete until the analogue signals can be switched off.
South Africa which was supposed to have reached the switch-off point by today, in line with the signed deadline agreement of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), has not even started the commercial switch-on period.
TV viewers no longer protected
From today South African analogue TV viewers are no longer protected by the ITU from signal interference.
After numerous announced commercial switch-on dates for DTT came and went, South Africa’s minister of communications, Faith Muthambi, is silent on a new date, saying the process – mired by infighting between broadcasters and manufacturers, confusion and allegations of corruption over the R4.3 billion STB tenders and further delayed by court action – will start soon.
"The process of rolling out STBs is aimed at a period of between 18 to 24 months once the minister announced dual illumination period after consulting the cabinet based on the potential timelines of the availability of STBs," says Solly Mokoetle, South Africa’s head of the DTT programme.
"The department anticipates the roll-out of STBs to be completed in the coming 18 to 24 months so that South Africans can switch off analogue signal," says the department of communications in a statement.
Numerous DTT problems
So far South Africans have not been told by government exactly how much they will have to pay for a STB which the government plans to distribute for the poorest people through the South African Post Office and the long-promised national DTT customer call centre is not operational.
Only a fraction of South Africa TV households, the poorest of the poor, will be subsidised with the cost of their STB – but the money allocated for these roughly 5 million households is already not enough. There is no definite indication of who qualifies, how they have to "prove" they're poor enough, and there's doubts about how the South Africa Post Office – mired in its own troubles – will be able to do DTT distribution.
South Africa started planning for DTT over a decade ago – the first country in Africa to do so, only to be passed by other countries on the African continent, and now missing the deadline. Not moving from analogue to digital broadcasting means much needed spectrum for internet broadband development can't be opened up.
Conflict and uncertainty continues around the STB tenders and tender process, encryption and conditional access control while the lack of real movement with DTT continues to stifle South Africa's TV industry with a growing threat to especially the free-to-air TV sector including the SABC as public broadcaster, community TV stations and e.tv.
The SABC has downsized its original DTT channels plan presented to parliament in 2011 and will now only launch 5 TV channels when it starts DTT (SABC1, SABC2, SABC3, SABC News, SABC Encore).
It's not yet clear how many new TV channels e.tv and M-Net will respectively launch under DTT as part of their new digital television bouquets.
Both broadcasters have seen their available spectrum under DTT constantly reduced several times over the past few years as the broadcasting regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) kept re-issuing and revising digital terrestrial television migration regulations.