Broadcasters such as MultiChoice, e.tv, TopTV, and the SABC are to pay fees to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) for the spectrum they use to deliver TV and radio signals to end users.
ICASA councillor William Stucke explained that broadcast users have not been charged such fees yet, but that ICASA published draft regulations in this regard which proposes that broadcasters pay exactly the same as telecommunications users.
Stucke was addressing various interested parties at a workshop to detail its new spectrum licensing fees, hosted by ICASA in Sandton on 5 March 2012.
Considering that these license fees could cost telecoms operators tens of millions of Rands, this seems like it could be a significant knock to broadcasters.
However, Stucke went on to outline exceptions for satellite operators that would see them paying significantly less than terrestrial wireless operators.
This is mainly because the fee for satellite operators won’t be adjusted according to the area they cover, or so-called “area sterilised” factor (ASTER).
Terrestrial broadcasters, on the other hand, will have their fee adjusted according to ASTER. This doesn’t mean that such broadcasters would see the same high spectrum licensing bills as telecommunications operators, however.
Outside of the fact that terrestrial broadcasters typically use less spectrum than telecoms operators, ICASA’s Mandla Mchunu explained that the whole process has stalled until after South Africa’s migration to digital broadcasting is complete.
This is because of certain incompatibilities between the draft regulations and the way in which capacity was assigned for digital broadcasting.
Stucke pointed out that licenses were given to the SABC, e.tv and DStv rather than signal distributors like Sentech. This capacity was also allocated in terms of space in a multiplex, rather than in frequency bandwidth (MHz).
As with the telecoms regulations, the draft broadcasting spectrum fee regulations are based on a per-MHz cost which don’t necessarily translate well to South Africa’s digital broadcasting model.
This means that ICASA would probably have to re-evaluate the regulations once the migration to digital is complete, but with the added benefit that it wouldn’t have to cater for analogue broadcasting at the same time.
Earlier this year (2012), the new Minister of Communications, Dina Pule said that the switch-on date for digital broadcasting will be pushed back. In January, indications were that the public launch of digital TV could only happen from Q3 2012.
Pule also said that the delay would affect the scheduled date for analogue switch-off, which was due to happen on 1 December 2013.
Along with many other nations, South Africa agreed with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to switch off analogue broadcasts by 17 June 2015.
However, industry speculation suggests that delays in the finalisation of the set-top box standard and the time it would take to produce STBs for every household will cause South Africa to miss even the ITU’s deadline.
Broadcasters can therefore look forward to free spectrum licenses for at least another few years.