The publication of the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy in the Government Gazette on 8 September 2008 unleashed another round of debate about the necessity of television taking the digital route.
What most critics overlooked is that South Africa is not alone in this process. It was a decision taken at the 2006 Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC-06) which resolved to switch from analogue to digital broadcasting services. South Africa plans to switch on its first digital transmission on 1 November 2008 and fully migrate to digital by 1 November 2011 when the analogue transmission will be switched off.
Besides the many new services that digital TV will bring with its introduction, it is more frequency-efficient, offering eight TV standard digital definition channels per radio frequency currently assigned to one analogue channel.
The migration to digital broadcasting will create opportunities for the development, use and wide dissemination of local content in all eleven official languages. It will also advance the expression and the efficient communication of the knowledge and experience of all communities and the country as a whole.
Recently the argument has shifted from why we need digital television to the set-top box (STB). The policy states that the television set-top box is a tool for bridging the digital divide. It will allow users to view digital transmissions on their current analogue TV sets, decoding the broadcast digital stream and convert it into an analogue signal that can be viewed on an analogue TV set. No one can argue with that! The real issue of contention is around the specification of the set-top box. Why do we have to have a unique South African set-top box if set-top boxes are available for next to nothing from countries in the East?
Is there a simple answer? Yes and no. One of the requirements government has agreed on is that set-top boxes must be affordable by the public at large; this means that some form of subsidisation is needed. So if set-top boxes are manufactured in South Africa (good for our economy) how does one prevent subsidised set-top boxes being exported at the cost of the tax payer? It obviously needs something that makes it uniquely South African ti make it unusable elsewhere. To this extent the policy proposes to have a control system to prevent STBs from being used outside the borders of South Africa. The policy also states that this would enable the box to be disabled if it were stolen. However to increase export potential the code should be able to be changed. A new challange for hackers!
One of the concerns in the industry is the delay in agreeing on the final STB standards to enable manufacturers to tool up and produce the first STBs, At the time of going to print two members of the Digital Migration Working Group (DMWG) (Department of Communication and SABC) said that the standards have been finalised but needed some editorial tweaking. Given that, it is very unlikely that if Sentech meets its target to switch on the first digital transmission on 1 November that approved STBs will be available.
So why not use cheap imports? Is it worth taking the chance! In the opinion of the DMWG the answer is a definite no. Mauritius recently switched over to digital television. The country’s broadcasting powers decided to go with open market STBs but has learned an expensive lesson – at least for the viewers. The service is erratic and many viewers have little or no television to watch. So back to the drawing board for the Mauritians!
Some interesting features are being incorporated in the proposed standards for South Africa STB including: secure over the air software download to enable service enhancements; a return path capability enabling the public to receive as well as send a message; the capability to unscramble encrypted broadcast signals.
DVB-T (EN 300 744) has been adopted as the national standard for terrestrial digital television broadcasting. It is the fastest-growing platform in Europe and other parts of the world. MPEG-4 is adopted as the compression standard for South Africa’s DTT rollout.
The “unscramble encrypted broadcast signals feature” could be used to enforce TV licence compliance but according to the powers that be, no such discussion has been taken. It will certainly be used by the pay channels as is currently the case with DSTV.