E-tv takes South Africa hostage over spectrum

E-tv owner eMedia has approached the Constitutional Court to further delay South Africa’s switch-off of analogue TV signals, the broadcaster has told MyBroadband.

eMedia filed the papers on 4 April 2022.

TechCentral reported that eMedia is also conditionally approaching the High Court to apply for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Should it fail in its bid to be heard by South Africa’s highest court, it could fall back on the Supreme Court of Appeal.

In its papers, eMedia argues that the matter is constitutional as it involves the rights of millions of indigent and vulnerable South Africans.

These individuals rely on old analogue TV signals to access news, information, and entertainment.

Communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni intends to cut off their access by switching off South Africa’s analogue TV signal, without giving households enough time to get devices that would let them receive digital TV broadcasts, eMedia says.

eMedia’s appeal comes after a full bench of the Pretoria High Court ruled on 28 March that the analogue switch-off must be delayed until 30 June 2022.

The ruling was a hollow victory for eMedia, which hoped to delay the digital migration until at least January 2023.

During the High Court hearings, it emerged that at least 261,000 indigent households would be left without access to TV after the switch-off date.

This is because these households registered after the deadline to receive government-subsidised decoder-like set-top boxes, which they need to receive digital TV signals on older televisions.

While the High Court ruled that the analogue switch-off should be delayed to accommodate all the households who registered before the deadline, its ruling for latecomers was less forgiving.

The court said that the minister must provide set-top boxes to the 261,000 who registered late by 30 September — three months after the analogue switch-off.

The court ruled that the government had done enough, within its powers, to help qualifying households obtain a set-top box.

“It is in the interest of the country, the economy, and for South Africans in general that the digital migration be finalised,” the ruling stated.

To add insult to injury, the ruling didn’t change much for eMedia.

Earlier on 28 March, industry regulator Icasa had announced that it would effectively be delaying the analogue switch-off until 30 June anyway.

This gave broadcasters and mobile network operators time to vacate the radio frequency bands in question.

Ammunition for Telkom

If eMedia gets leave to appeal the ruling, it could provide Telkom with additional ammunition it needs to have South Africa’s radio frequency spectrum auction declared invalid.

Telkom informed shareholders on 28 March that it would continue its legal fight against the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) over its spectrum auction.

Spectrum is the raw network capacity cellular operators like Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C use to communicate between their towers and mobile devices.

Telkom is unhappy with the process Icasa followed and its rules during the auction.

Specifically, Telkom feels it was not allowed to buy as much spectrum as it wanted because Icasa’s rules set caps on how much any individual operator can own.

Before heading into the auction, Telkom already had more spectrum than Vodacom and MTN combined.

However, it didn’t have precious low-frequency sub–1GHz spectrum and feels it didn’t get to buy as much as it wanted.

The analogue TV frequencies subject to E-tv’s appeal include the sub–1GHz frequencies sold during Icasa’s auction.

One of Telkom’s arguments is that the auction can’t be valid if those frequencies aren’t available for mobile operators to use.

Ellipsis Regulatory Solutions founder Dominic Cull said a Telkom victory would delay the release of additional spectrum by at least 15–18 months.

Telkom’s court hearing is set down for 11–14 April 2022.

South Africa’s mobile network operators — Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C — have all said that the release of this spectrum is essential to improve network coverage and quality, and drive down prices.

Human settlements minister Mmamoloko Kubayi has accused the partially state-owned Telkom of holding South Africa to ransom with its legal action.

By Kubayi’s measure, eMedia has now also taken South Africa hostage.

Now read: eMedia profit jumps 1,600%

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E-tv takes South Africa hostage over spectrum