For those who have followed the saga of South Africa’s (non) migration to digital terrestrial television (DTT), many phrases might come to mind. Shambles. Disaster. Corruption. Government ineptitude. Regulatory and legal battles. The list goes on.
However one describes it, the fact is that migration has been delayed for so long I think many people just forgot it was meant to happen at all. What was supposed to have been a boon for local companies that were able to secure contracts to manufacture DTT set-top boxes (STB) subsidised by the government, instead faded into obscurity.
Now, after all that waiting, the switch-off of analog TV signals is finally beginning. Concrete details are hard to come by, since the rebranded Department of Communications and Digital Technologies seems to prefer communicating via Twitter and Facebook these days, but the sequence goes something like this: the Free State is planned to be switched off in March, followed over the course of this year by the Northern Cape, North West, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape, Limpopo and finally Gauteng in January 2022.
The big question now is: does anybody still care? People of modest financial means will have to fork out cash they don’t have for a DTT STB if they want to watch free-to-air TV, which for generations has required no more than an off-the-shelf TV set and an annual licence fee. Those with the financial means to pay for DSTV, or Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or any combination of the growing number of online streaming platforms, have already done so, and are likely to view a free-to-air bouquet as second-rate content.
Of course, if this long drawn out process has taught us anything, it’s that what government says and what government does are in absolutely no way related. If anything, the two concepts seem to reside in parallel universes that are unaware of each other’s existence. A new hurdle has also been thrown in the way by Telkom’s lawsuit against ICASA, which lawsuit succeeded in halting the planned licencing auction that would have freed up wireless spectrum to enable the switch-over. Telkom’s argument is that it won’t have immediate access to the spectrum bands still used by analog broadcasters but will be expected to pay for access to the spectrum upfront. Telkom argues that this is unfair to smaller mobile players that do not have the same financial resources as Vodacom and MTN.
Hypothetically speaking, if everything goes according to plan, local electronics manufacturers will find themselves embroiled in a free market for the production and sale of DTT STBs, competing against the likes of the Chinese and others who can make them cheaper. The global shortage of electronic components isn’t helping things either (read more about that on page 4) and companies will understandably be targeting established, lucrative markets, which digital TV most certainly is not. Government’s policy on local procurement is supposed to make it a more level playing field for local manufacturers, but as history has shown us on this front, the lips move to distract our attention away from the idle hands.
Brett van den Bosch
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