Digital TV will be as useless as local loop unbundling

In May of 2007, the committee for local loop unbundling (LLU) completed a report for the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) with recommendations on how to implement LLU.

LLU refers to the opening up of Telkom’s old copper network to give Internet service providers the ability to build their own broadband services, like DSL, using the existing cables.

It was meant to set off a new wave of competition in fixed-line broadband services in South Africa and help improve quality levels while bringing prices down.

The 2007 committee was led by Tshilidzi Marwala, now the vice chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, who said at the time that all the mechanisms for LLU should be in place by January 2008.

Former communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri set a November 2011 deadline for the completion of LLU.

However, ICASA had scarcely begun the LLU process by the time the deadline rolled around. The outcome of its initial consultation with industry and other parties was a 30% price reduction in Telkom’s wholesale ADSL product, IP Connect.

It further promised to ensure that Telkom implemented a Bitstream Access product, a shallowed variant of LLU, by November 2012. Regardless of its depth, Bitstream never materialised.

A new Telkom under the leadership of Sipho Maseko said in 2015 that it was piloting LLU, promising more open-access broadband after the system had been thoroughly tested at 200 of its exchanges.

This also didn’t happen. Not because Telkom was clinging to its fixed-line monopoly this time, but because it didn’t need to. New, independent fibre-to-the-home networks were exploding around South Africa and Telkom had to keep up.

In May 2014, residents of the up-market Johannesburg suburb of Parkhurst announced they were tired of waiting for incumbent network providers to get around to rolling out fibre.

They put out a request for proposal, which was ultimately won by a company nobody had ever heard of — Vumatel. This inspired several similar initiatives, with different companies winning the rights to roll out fibre infrastructure to different affluent “leafy” suburbs.

As Parkhurst’s network came online, Vumatel expanded. Network providers who had slowly been building fibre local loops in the few areas where it was deemed financially feasible to do so suddenly realised the market was much bigger than they had thought.

LLU had been rendered moot. In hindsight, fibre was always going to be our future, and LLU’s “too little, too late” moment had been reached years before already.

Round and round we go…

History is repeating itself in the saga that has unfolded over South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital TV broadcasting.

A simple transition which seemed like a done deal until it was plunged into chaos by former director-general of the Department of Communications, Mamodupi Mohlala.

South Africa’s migration to digital terrestrial TV was initially set to complete in November 2011, nearly four years before the internationally agreed-upon deadline.

Every TV viewer in South Africa who used an antenna to receive a signal should have been switched to digital and the analogue signal turned off.

Not only would this unlock more channel capacity for broadcasters like the SABC and Etv, and allow DStv a different platform for its pay-TV services, it would also free precious spectrum which wireless network operators could use to offer faster, cheaper broadband services.

Thanks to the wrench Mohlala threw in the works, the deadline slipped to 2012.

This also opened another can of worms — previously finalised regulations were re-opened for discussion, and a fierce battle between DStv and Etv erupted.

Etv argued that decoder-like devices called set-top boxes, which government subsidised for South Africa’s poorest, should support technology to encrypt TV signals. This was interchangeably referred to as set-top box control, conditional access, or simply “encryption”.

Since the boxes were subsidised, they had to be protected from the unscrupulous people who might buy up the boxes given to the poor, then scalp them overseas in European markets that use the same digital TV standard as South Africa.

However, DStv argued that Etv was really after a tax-payer funded entry into the pay-TV space. If government required that all set-top boxes must support encryption, Etv would not have to manufacture its own decoder and persuade viewers to buy it. Etv did not dispute the point.

The fight dragged on for years and got quite ugly. President Jacob Zuma did not help matters by first splitting the Ministry of Communications into two, and then frequently “reshuffling” the minister.

Current communications minister Mmamoloko Kubayi, who has been on the job since October, has contradicted her predecessor Ayanda Dlodlo and said that encryption will remain out of government set-top boxes.

This is in-line with a decision made by former minister of communications Faith Muthambi, which was upheld by the Constitutional Court, but against earlier Cabinet and ANC policy.

Kubayi has also confirmed that the migration deadline will slip again — from December 2018 to June 2019.

With deadlines slipping from November 2011 to June 2019, digital migration for broadcast services is starting to look even worse than LLU did for copper cables in 2017.

While the availability of cheap broadband and the price of mobile data in South Africa is still an inhibiting factor, elsewhere in the world people are increasingly ditching pay-TV and switching to streaming video.

The future is digital, but not in the way South Africa’s first digital broadcasting advisory group in 2006 envisioned.

Vumatel has announced plans to roll out super-fast 100Mbps uncapped fibre services to 10 million people living in South African townships before the end of 2019. Cell C and Discover Digital have launched streaming video platforms which have live TV channels, including news and niche sports.

By 2019, TV broadcasting in South Africa might very well look like DSL broadband over copper does today — dying. Faster and faster every quarter.

While the migration will still help free up spectrum and provide services for those without affordable broadband access, it is now nothing more than a stopgap.

Even traditional broadcasters can see what the future of video entertainment will look like and it is not linear, nor will it be restricted by country borders.

This is an opinion piece.

Now read: Short notice for new law to take back Vodacom and MTN spectrum

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Digital TV will be as useless as local loop unbundling