Broadcasting digital migration

By Sandile Nene

When it comes to digital migration programme or the digital terrestrial television project, it is a universal norm that government has the final right to make policy, even if government does not directly implement all sections of the programme.  

In other words, government through the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), has the greatest role to play in actualising the migration. It is the role of DCDT to lead the movement by fashioning out appropriate policy on methodology and pace of migration, and generally giving direction to the industry in the interest of the nation.

Against this backdrop, digital migration is the process by which broadcasting around the world today are switching from inefficient analogue signals to more efficient digital ones. This is primarily in the distribution (transmission) of broadcasting. In fact, without digital transmission, you don’t have digital migration, even if production and reception are digital. Digital distribution, however, has a major bearing on both the production and consumption dimensions of broadcasting.

The resolution for countries to transmit from analogue to digital broadcasting was adopted in 2006 at a meeting referred to as the Regional Radiocommunications Conference (RRC-06), of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and agreed by 101 nations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Backing the ITU decision on a  timetable (June 2015) for digital migration is the accompanying decision that, after the defined cut-off date, the ITU will no longer intervene to protect a country’s TV broadcast signals in any instances where these are being swamped by a neighbour’s, unless those signals have been switched to digital.

While our transition from the analogue to digital broadcasting has been slow and cumbersome, and deadlines have been missed due to a number of factors. Naturally, this has raised concern about our country being left behind.

These concerns are fair and reasonable considering that all countries, which are party to the Geneva 2006 Agreement for Digital Broadcasting, should have completed the migration by now. The reality however, is that various obstacles along the way have hampered our progress in this crucial area. Our country was unable to meet the deadline largely because of factors that were beyond our control, in particular legal court challenges.

The delay was initially caused by disagreements between the government and other broadcasters on whether subsidised set-top boxes should contain an encryption system. This disagreement affected our ability to meet agreed timelines and the dispute was finally settled through the courts.

The matter started in the High Court and went up to highest court in the country. The Constitutional Court in 2017 ruled in favour of government to continue using an unencrypted system. Therefore, there is no truth in the assertion that our government lacks urgency in digital migration as it takes months if not years for a dispute to reach the apex court.

Even though we missed the deadline to migrate, this has not resulted in a blackout or disruptive television signals. This is simply because we implemented plans to minimise the potential cross-border radio frequency interference from neighbouring countries. South Africa signed bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries to minimise cross-border radio frequency spectrum interference.

In the meantime, South Africa is decisively moving ahead with its migration from analogue to digital spectrum that will unleash much-needed bandwidth for the country. We are now slowly making headway and have made significant progress to ensure that digital migration becomes a reality in the country.

Unfortunately, we have been delayed through the intervention of the court again where stakeholders demanded further public consultation. The court has ordered that further consultation be held with stakeholders and role-players before proceeding with the analogue switch off.

We continue to install set-top boxes to outstanding poor households. All applicants are subjected to means tests to determine whether they qualify for indigent status. Those who do not qualify for free set-top-boxes will incur a once-off cost to buy them from the retail market. 

We are resolute that digital broadcasting will become a reality and in line with our National Development Plan to create a robust, reliable, secure and affordable ICT infrastructure. The NDP calls for a National ICT policy that supports the needs of the economy and the migration from analogue will promote industrial development, job creation and access to information.

The shift will release limited radio frequency spectrum, which is used for the purposes of both broadcasting and telecommunications. It will lead to a more efficient use of available spectrum since digital broadcasts only require a fraction of the spectrum required by analogue broadcasts. It will also allow for more channels and more content to be broadcast in the same bandwidth as one current analogue channel uses.

In addition, it will connect rural and urban, rich and poor ensuring that South African citizens transact and communicate more effectively with the use of technology.

It is clear that we are well on course to switch on to digital. To succeed, we need each and everyone in the country to work together with government to ensure that the migration is a success. This exciting opportunity allows us to put aside our differences and place the interest of our nation first by ensuring that we deliver digital television to all South Africans.