South Africa will switch to digital TV by 2021 – Here is the plan

The Department of Communications has outlined its plan to implement its broadcasting digital migration (BDM) programme in South Africa.

In a presentation to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, the department said it would begin distributing digital set-top boxes and fast-track the digital migration near the end of 2020.

Digital migration refers to the movement from analogue to digital broadcasting, which delivers clearer signal reception, additional bandwidth, and superior picture quality.

Migrating from analogue broadcasting will also free up high-priority spectrum in the 700 and 800MHz bands, which will greatly enhance mobile operators’ ability to lower data prices and improve speeds in South Africa.

The department said the completion of its broadcasting digital migration programme is five years behind schedule and is being held up by household migration to digital set-top boxes.

Set-top boxes are required to receive digital broadcasting signals, and while DStv decoders already support this functionality, many households continue to use only analogue hardware.

The less affluent among these households will require subsidies to receive installation of digital set-top box hardware, whether it is a terrestrial or a satellite broadcasting setup.

Switch-off deadline

“Progress towards finalising the BDM programme has been very slow, primarily due to the poor pace of household migration to digital platforms,” the department said.

It said the delay in migrating customers to digital terrestrial and satellite TV was affected by the following:

  • The encryption debate
  • High decoder production costs
  • Poor visibility of public broadcaster to lead migration awareness
  • Private sector broadcasters influence based on commercial interests
  • Structural deficiencies in project management structure
  • SOEs and external stakeholder management challenges
  • Poor programme visibility and inward-looking approach.

The department also said that it needs to clear the decoder stock currently kept in the SA Post Office warehouse and drive mass availability of affordable digital TV decoders.

Cabinet has approved 2021 as the switch-off year for analogue broadcasting, which means that the roll-out of these decoders must be expedited, especially to poor and subsidised communities.

Digital television transmission is currently active, with full national household coverage comprising 88% terrestrial and 12% satellite broadcasting.

However, of the 4.7 million indigent households in South Africa, only 1,109,965 registrations for digital migration subsidies have been recorded.

Decoder subsidies

USAASA has procured 1.5 million decoders for a government subsidy, 1 million of which are aerial and 500,000 which use satellite broadcasting.

“Of the total 1.5 million consignments ordered, 1.39 million decoders have been delivered to SAPO warehouses with the aerial and satellite dishes delivery completed,” the department said.

“Of the 1.1 million registered households, 511,368 installations have been completed, leaving at least 600,000 registered households still to be connected.”

Once the stock clearance and indigent registrations are completed, the department will begin to migrate households on a province-by-province basis in the following order:

  1. Free State excluding Bloemfontein
  2. Northern Cape excluding Kimberley and Upington
  3. North West
  4. Mpumalanga excluding Mbombela
  5. Limpopo excluding Polokwane
  6. Eastern Cape excluding Port Elizabeth
  7. KwaZulu-Natal excluding Durban
  8. Western Cape excluding Cape Town
  9. Metro areas (Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Upington, Mbombela, Polokwane, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Cape Town
  10. Gauteng (done in parallel with the metros listed above)

Looking forward, the department has outlined a number of timelines for its digital migration plan.

In February 2020, it said it would procure installation services managed by Sentech and streamline its implementation plan with the recommended spectrum release sequence.

Next, it plans to confirm funding requirements with the National Treasury and finalise its implementation for indigent voucher subsidies in June and July 2020 respectively.

In September 2020, the department plans to distribute devices in line with the roll-out sequence listed above, and in December 2020, it plans to fast-track and complete the registration process for poor households that require subsidies.

South Africa has a terrible track record with expediting its migration to digital broadcasting, but as we near the switch-off date approved by Cabinet, the department has made it clear in its presentation that it aims to meet this deadline.

The infographic below details the department’s strategy for complete digital migration by 2021.

Department of Communications BDM Programme

Now read: DStv channels and prices – Premium vs Compact vs Compact Plus

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South Africa will switch to digital TV by 2021 – Here is the plan