The South African broadcasting industry waits breath abated for an announcement from the Department of Communications (DoC) that will resolve South Africa’s current digital standards mess.
A week has passed since the Southern African Development Community (SADC) declared DVB-T2 as the digital terrestrial television (DTT) standard of choice for the region and the South African Department of Communications (DoC) has yet to comment on the matter.
This comes after a long battle between the European DVB-T and Japanese ISDB-T digital broadcasting standards in South Africa.
The committee of ministers responsible for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for SADC recommended on 24 November that the region adopt DVB-T2 using MPEG4 compression as its official DTT standard.
DVB-T as SA’s DTT standard: A brief history
Over the course of about ten years South Africa evaluated various DTT standards and selected DVB-T for its digital broadcasting needs.
This decision came from the recommendations of two different bodies which were appointed by Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, who held the position of Minister of Communications at the time.
Matsepe-Casaburri established the Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board (DBAB) in 2001 which recommended the DVB family of standards in 2002. She then established the Digital Migration Working Group (DMWG) in 2005 which recommended the adoption of DVB-T using the MPEG-4 compression standard.
In September 2008, the Department of Communications (DoC) under Matsepe-Casaburri published the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy for South Africa (BDMP).
The policy approved the following standards for national adoption:
- DVB-T (EN 300 144) for broadcasting digital terrestrial television in South Africa.
- DVB-S (EN 300 421) for broadcasting digital satellite television in South Africa.
- MPEG-4 as the compression standard for South Africa’s DTT roll-out, while existing direct-to-home (DTH) services continue to use MPEG-2 with the option to migrate to MPEG-4 when commercially viable.
According to the BDMP the switch-on date for digital broadcasting was 1 November 2008 and the switch-off date for analogue terrestrial television broadcasts is to be 1 November 2011.
“This shorter 3-year dual illumination period will reduce the costs of digital migration,” the policy said.
In August 2009 SADC then also recommended DVB-T in a draft version of its “Plan of Action for Digital Broadcasting Migration in SADC.”
This document was published in September 2009, after the Regional Broadcasting Digital Migration Working Forum was convened by the Communications Regulators’ Association of Southern Africa (CRASA).
“DVB-T should be adopted as the standard, with the provision for countries to upgrade to DVB-T2 should they elect to do so,” the SADC committee of ministers responsible for information, and communication technology (ICT) said in the document.
In February 2010 the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) published the final digital migration regulations that were to govern South Africa’s transition from analogue to digital broadcasting.
DVB-T vs. ISDB-T: War for South African airwaves
In April 2010 the DoC infuriated the South African broadcasting industry by calling for a “standards symposium” to be held in Midrand to investigate the available DTT standards. Again.
SADC also suddenly revealed in May 2010 that rather than fleshing out the original draft plan of action for digital migration, an ad-hoc sub-committee would be set up to “[investigate] and advise Member States on the viability of the different technical standards, with a view to the Region moving towards adoption of one common standard.”
The standards battle began in earnest when the former director-general (DG) of the DoC, Mamodupi Mohlala, announced that South Africa hadn’t actually selected a standard for digital broadcasting.
Industry stakeholders such as M-Net, e.tv, the Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association (SADIBA) and the South African Communications Forum (SACF) rubbished Mohlala’s claim, citing the chain of events prior to April 2010.
Siphiwe Nyanda, the previous Minister of Communications, later contradicted his ex-DG’s claims, saying that South Africa’s chosen standard was still DVB-T. He contextualised the statement by saying that South Africa agreed to the standard “with reservations.”
According to Nyanda it wasn’t the DoC, but SADC that decided to review the choice of DTT standards due to “technological developments.”
At this point it was already mid-October 2010 and President Zuma was about to shake up the DoC by replacing the Minister and Deputy Minister of Communications.
While the war of words between DVB-T and ISDB-T proponents intensified due to a technical demonstration of ISDB-T in South Africa by a Japanese delegation, it seemed as if there was nothing to do but to wait for SADC’s recommendation.
Hurry up and wait
It is strange that the DoC would adopt a policy to fast track the migration from analogue to digital television broadcasting over three years and then waste seven of the 36 months re-evaluating South Africa’s decision on a broadcasting standard.
It should be noted that ISDB-T was generally available when the various standards were initially evaluated, prior to the publishing of the BDMP. From all reports the Japanese standard was considered when the DMWG compared the digital broadcasting standards available at the time.
The DoC set the analogue switch-off date for 1 November 2011 in order to reduce the costs of digital migration, the BDMP says. A shorter “dual illumination period” would also mean that South Africa could reap what is known as the digital dividend sooner.
The digital dividend refers to certain frequencies occupied by broadcasters that will become available once the migration to digital broadcasting is complete. This spectrum has been allocated to mobile services, such as broadband.
As the frequencies in the digital dividend are lower than those used for mobile broadband currently, its use will allow operators to cover larger areas from a single base station, among other benefits. In South Africa, spectrum in the UHF band, which is currently occupied by players such as M-Net, has been earmarked for this.
Broadcasters were already put under pressure to meet the 1 November 2011 analogue switch-off date due to the fact that it took until early 2010 for South Africa’s digital migration regulations to be finalised.
It remains to be seen whether the currently scheduled switch-off date can be met given the significant delay caused by the standards debate.
Start the migration already
Until the Department of Communications gives the official go-ahead, the broadcasting industry would be taking a risk if they proceeded with their current DVB-T deployments, or began mass producing digital TV set top box (STB) decoders.
While SADC may have recommended the DVB family of standards for the region, the committee of ministers added in their report that member states may implement any standard they wish as long as it’s in-line with the Geneva ITU GE06 agreement.
This potentially leaves the door open to standards such as ISDB-T and ISDB-Tb, though industry specialists have indicated that the GE06 agreement was drawn up with DVB-T in mind.
Without official word from the DoC, however, one is left to speculate on what could be taking so long.
We can only hope that the silence from the department is because they’re evaluating the feasibility of South Africa going straight to DVB-T2 rather than proceeding with the current DVB-T rollout and upgrading later.
M-Net and e.tv have announced that they’ve been successfully trialling DVB-T2 in Soweto since mid-September.
Repeated attempts to get in touch with the Minister of Communications Radhakrishna “Roy” Padayachie were unsuccessful.
Digital TV migration: Why is the DoC so quiet? << Comments and views
DVB-T stands for Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial
ISDB-T stands for Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting – Terrestrial