The thing I allude to in the title of this column is digital terrestrial television (DTT). The transition away from analog TV signals is certainly sensible given that we’re living in the digital age and the advantages that come with DTT include better sound and picture quality. Despite these improvements, though, it was not the TV-watching public who were clamouring for change – in fact, it would be perfectly understandable if most of the millions of people who rely on free-to-air broadcasts are nonplussed over the whole thing and annoyed that they will now need a set-top box to watch TV when none was needed before.
The main benefit of digital migration is, of course, the fact that digital signals can effectively be packed more tightly and therefore use up less bandwidth of the RF spectrum. And therein lies the crux of the matter: by freeing up some of that highly congested spectrum, it becomes available for other purposes, primarily the rollout of 5G cellular networks to accelerate the much-touted ‘digital transformation’ process in which South Africa is lagging so far behind.
As is the way of things, the more rare a resource is the more precious it becomes, as evidenced by the fact that six network operators forked out R14,4 billion collectively for the rights to use the most in-demand frequency ranges that will be freed up once analog TV transmissions are finally switched off. And when will that be? If current communications minister, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, had her way it would already have happened at the end of March. Her sense of urgency is commendable after years of delays under her various predecessors’ tenures, but the adjective the country’s High Court ascribed to it was ‘unlawful’.
In its judgement handed down on 28 March, the court ruled in favour of e.tv (and other litigants) by ordering that the analog switch-off process be deferred until the end of June this year. The court agreed with e.tv’s argument that more time is needed for the free delivery and installation of set-top boxes to the estimated half a million poorer households that are eligible and have registered. It further ordered her to report within one month on government’s plans to firstly ensure that qualifying households are provided with DTT access and secondly, to provide viewers with all necessary information about the changeover and adequately equipped call centres to deal with their anticipated queries.
While both sides claimed the verdict as a victory, the judgement in its totality is a pretty big win for minister Ntshavheni, as e.tv had asked for a much longer delay of nine to twelve months and was furthermore ordered to pay half of the minister’s legal costs. She certainly managed to put a positive spin on it, saying in a statement that she was ‘elated’ by the outcome. It will undoubtedly be a feather in her cap to be the communications minister who finally – after more than a decade of legal wranglings, corporate shenanigans and political manoeuvring – seals the deal.
In mitigation of that praise, though, I must mention one other thing that no one wants, which minister Ntshavheni is behind: her public castigation of the SABC for daring to criticise her decision to target the end of March 2022 for analog switch-off and threatening punitive measures including withdrawal of financial aid. Dear minister, the SABC is the state’s public broadcaster, not its propaganda vehicle and punishing it will only hurt the public you have been appointed to serve. To threaten it for not falling in line with your political interests is unworthy of your station.
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