South Africa’s transition to Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) has been a dismal and costly affair, characterised by the government’s ineptitude and inability to meet multiple deadlines.
Digital migration is regarded as an essential step towards broadband growth in South Africa, as the process will open up of valuable frequency spectrum in the lower ranges.
Switching analogue television broadcasts to digital signals would free up spectrum and allow mobile operators and other service providers to deliver better and more affordable broadband connectivity in these bands.
The Department of Communications (DoC) revealed its broadcasting digital migration (BDM) programme in early February.
In a presentation to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, the DoC said it would begin distributing digital set-top boxes and fast-track digital migration near the end of 2020.
The latest announcement is one of many spanning almost two decades of promises to meet certain deadlines. This has not been helped by the fact that the position of minister of the department has changed 10 times during this period.
Cabinet has now approved 2021 to be the analogue switch-off date, but it remains to be seen if it is able to follow through and complete migration by the end of next year.
Below follows a summary of the delays in the migration process under each minister in charge of the Department of Communications (DoC).
2001 – Appointment of Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board
Minister of Telecommunications and Communications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri appoints the Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board (DBAB) in 2001.
Its mandate was to investigate several factors around digital migration, including the standard which was to be used for digital broadcasting.
2002 – DVB-T recommended
In 2002, the DBAB delivered its report with recommendations that included South Africa use the terrestrial version of the Digital Video Broadcasting standard, or DVB-T, which was developed in Europe.
21 June 2004 – Policy framework to be announced
During her Budget Vote Speech on 21 June 2004, Matsepe-Casaburri announced that South Africa would be moving from analogue to digital television broadcasting.
“We will be piloting a policy framework for the migration from analogue to the digital broadcasting system,” Matsepe-Casaburri stated.
She said that a complete strategy for digital migration would be announced by the end of 2004.
2005 – Establishment of a Digital Broadcasting Migration Working Group
The following year, Matsepe-Casaburri announced she would establish a Digital Broadcasting Migration Working Group, consisting of various representatives from the industry, the regulator, consumers, business and government.
“Inputs to and from the report from the Digital Broadcasting Migration Working Group will culminate in a national strategy for the migration of broadcasting systems from analogue to digital,” Matsepe-Casaburri explained.
The composition and Terms of Reference for the report was to be announced in June 2005. This only happened in 2006.
2006 – Strategy to be finalised
On 25 May 2006, Matsepe-Casaburri finally indicated in her Budget Vote Speech that the digital migration Working Group had been established.
Matsepe-Casaburri added that the digital migration Strategy is one of the DoC’s priority areas and would be concluded later in 2006.
This did not happen.
2007 – First deadline for analogue switch-off
On 25 May 2007, Matsepe-Casaburri announced that Cabinet had approved the initial deadline for the digital signal to be switched on as 1 November 2008.
The dual-illumination period was set to run for three years and the original analogue signal switch-off was to be 1 November 2011.
Matsepe-Casaburri further indicated that the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) Policy would be gazetted on 1 June 2007.
The policy was only gazetted more than a year later – on 8 September 2008.
She further claimed that Sentech was on schedule to provide 80% DTT by the 2010 FIFA World Cup. By 2012, that coverage only stood at 60%.
3 June 2008 – The DTT process is “on track”
During her Budget Vote Speech on 3 June 2008, Matsepe-Casaburri again attempted to assure Parliament that the migration process was going as planned when she said it was “on track” to meet the deadlines.
This was despite the fact that the original BDM Policy still needed to be published in the Government Gazette.
Broadcasters did eventually start transmitting a digital signal on 30 October 2008, one day before the deadline.
Matsepe-Casaburri died on 6 April 2009, with Manto Tshabalala-Msimang taking over as acting minister for a brief period.
2009 – The General enters
Following Tshabalala-Msimang, Siphiwe “The General” Nyanda was the first minister of the department appointed by President Jacob Zuma.
Multiple controversies marred Nyanda’s career – including allegations of tender corruption, excessive spending on official cars, an extended luxury hotel stay, and general abuse of power to benefit his friends.
2010 – Review of DVB-T standard
A significant setback for digital migration came in April 2010, when the DoC called for a symposium to be held to reopen discussions into digital broadcasting standards.
This came despite the fact that South Africa had agreed to the International Telecommunication Union’s Geneva 06 Agreement, which stipulated that the DVB-T standard would be applied to countries that fell in Region 1.
This agreement was not formally ratified by Parliament, but the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) regarded South Africa’s acceptance thereof as binding.
On 1 June Nyanda announced that the department was reviewing its decision to use the DVB-T standard. This curve-ball announcement came after a Ministerial conference of the Southern African Development Countries (SADC) held in May 2010.
Nyanda claimed this was because the DVB-T standard had become obsolete and had been updated to DVB-T2.
Reports suggested, however, that pressure from Brazil and Japan to adopt an alternative standard, ISDB-T, was to blame for the decision.
Nyanda said that if a new standard was chosen, it would add several months to the process. This meant that the November 2011 deadline was a total pipe-dream.
“There are many things that can impact on the date. I think many people have been really sceptical about whether November 2011 is achievable,” Nyanda stated.
Later in June 2010, communications ministry director-general Mamodupi Mohlala said that the department had been told by experts that the DVB-T standard proved technically problematic.
These experts said that it would make more sense to use the standard’s successor, DVB-T2, or another standard.
2011 – New analogue switch-off date
Roy Padayachie was appointed as Minister of Communications on 1 November 2010, following the sacking of Nyanda.
Fortunately, Padayachie confirmed in his Budget Vote Speech on 31 May 2011 that Cabinet had decided to adopt DVB-T2, the upgraded form of DVB-T standard.
However, the analogue switch-off date was postponed for two years.
“December 2013 is the new analogue switch-off date, with a view to allowing the period between 2013 and 2015 to address any challenge that may arise towards the ITU deadline of 2015,” Padayachie stated.
Despite these delays, Padayachie claimed that “significant progress” had been made in implementing the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy.
He was replaced by Dina Pule on 25 October 2011.
2012 – More “substantial progress”
Minister Pule gazetted “final” amendments to the BDM Policy on 7 and 12 February 2012. This revised policy indicated that DVB-T2 would be the new national standard for broadcasting digital terrestrial television in South Africa.
Pule’s Budget Vote Speech on 8 May 2012 contained more of the same rhetoric as those of her predecessors, with claims of “substantial progress” being made towards the implementation of the BDM Policy.
“It is envisaged that the final gazette will be published in June 2012,” Pule said.
ICASA published its final Digital Migration regulations on 18 December 2012.
Despite initially aiming for a switch-off date for analogue TV signals by 1 November 2011, Pule announced that the standard which would be used to manufacture the set-top boxes (STBs) capable of receiving the digital signal would only be ready by May 2012.
2013 – Government blames broadcasters for more delays
In April 2013, Pule said the STB Control issue was affecting government’s advancement of the migration process.
STB Control is a system which involves encrypted or otherwise modified television broadcast signals and which may include “conditional access.”
“The SABC and eTV have yet to advise us on the set-top-box control system…. this has resulted in the current delays we are facing,” Pule said.
On 31 July 2013, the SABC and MultiChoice signed a controversial R553 million deal which entailed that the public broadcaster would not encrypt its DTT STBs.
2013 – STB Control tussle
Yunus Carrim took over the reins at the department on 10 July 2013 for what would only be a 10-month run.
Carrim indicated that removing an STB Control SANS specification which required all boxes to have a control mechanism would delay the migration effort by a further 34 weeks.
On 8 September 2013, Carrim acknowledged that the debate over STB Control was delaying digital migration.
“As the government, we accept our share of responsibility for the delays in digital migration, but unless we get a measure of consensus among the broadcasters and other contending parties, we aren’t going to be able to move swiftly forward,” he said.
The department missed the new analogue switch-off deadline of December 2013.
On 4 December 2013, Cabinet approved a BDM policy amendment which would allow broadcasters to choose for themselves if their digital TV STBs includes a control system.
2014 – MultiChoice vs E-tv
MultiChoice and several others wanted the SANS specification removed, while E-tv wanted it to remain in place.
The full reasons for their stances were complex, but in basic terms, MultiChoice did not want to spend more for the hardware and software needed to handle encryption, while E-tv maintained that it would lose access to HD content from its providers, as it believed these parties would feel unencrypted decoders do not provide sufficient copyright protection from piracy.
This issue placed Government in a precarious position, with prospects for legal action against it if it decided to stick to or change the policy.
2014 – Carrim and MultiChoice lock horns
No amicable solution to the STB Control debate was reached, and the disagreement eventually saw MultiChoice, Act-SA and Namec publish an accusatory open letter to the Minister on 16 March 2014.
In this letter – titled “Give us free, unencrypted digital TV now” – the parties argued that encryption would make migration more expensive for consumers, free-to-air broadcasters, and government, as well as disadvantage emerging black manufacturers and make the migration process complex.
Carrim vehemently refuted the letter’s contents in a near-immediate response and said that “it is utterly wrong to say that government’s policy requires Free-To-Air signals to be encrypted.”
He emphasised that the broadcasters, not government, had the power to transmit their signals in any format they choose.
2014 – Final BDM policy to be published
In 2014, President Jacob Zuma decided to rename the DoC to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services and created a new Ministry of Communications.
Siyabonga Cwele was appointed as Minister of the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services on 25 May 2014, while Faith Muthambi concurrently headed the Ministry of Communications.
On 16 July 2014, Cwele said that the final broadcasting digital migration policy would be published by the end of the month. This would only happen in March of the following year.
Cwele said that there was no doubt that the country’s digital migration process had faced many challenges.
“The June 2015 deadline looms before us and we dare not let our people down,” Cwele proclaimed.
2015 – Missing the ITU’s deadline
South Africa was not able to start the analogue broadcast switch-off by the ITU’s deadline of 17 June 2015.
On 17 September 2015, Cwele said that it was “quite embarrassing” that the country went from potentially being one of the first in the world to migrate to digital terrestrial television (DTT) to failing to meet the deadline.
2015 – No STB Control for free-to-air-broadcasters
Much of the attention around digital migration then shifted to Faith Muthambi’s failures.
If Muthambi’s predecessors’ performance could graciously be rated as below-average, comparatively her three years as Minister of Communications were near-catastrophic.
One of her most stunning moves came in the final amendments to the BDM policy published on 18 March 2015.
Muthambi had inserted a policy change on STB Control which said that free-to-air DTT STBs would not have encryption.
This went directly against a decision taken by the ANC to hold to a December 2013 decision by Carrim and the Cabinet to leave the SANS specification as is.
In addition to the change in STB Control policy, Muthambi announced the starting date of a new dual-illumination period as 1 February 2016.
The analogue switch-off date would be announced after consultation with Cabinet, she stated.
Muthambi added that the roll-out of government-subsidised STBs had commenced and digital broadcast channels were made available to the broadcasters.
2015 – The STB battle begins
Following the announcement of non-encryption for STBs, e-TV filed an application on 14 April 2015 to review aspects of the new BDM policy.
The trial dragged on for years and went all the way to the Constitutional Court, with MultiChoice and other broadcasters also joining as respondents in the case.
Muthambi was slated in a scathing judgment by the Supreme Court of Appeal on 31 May 2016.
The court labelled the minister as “confused” and “irrational” when she amended the BDM policy without consulting broadcasters and other industry players and regarded her decision as invalid.
The department appealed the decision, however, and the final finding on the validity of Muthambi’s decision would only be delivered in 2017.
28 October 2016 – Full digital coverage completed
On 28 October 2016, Muthambi turned the analogue transmitters in the core of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) area off.
“This means that households with television sets in the SKA area will now receive fully subsidised set-top-boxes once they have completed the registration process,” Muthambi said.
Additionally, she announced that Sentech had reached 84% geographic digital coverage, and said that the remaining 16% would be covered by satellite.
5 November 2016 – Digital migration is no longer impossible
On 5 November 2016, Muthambi paid herself a compliment on her “progress”.
“I think everyone in the country can see that digital migration is no longer an impossible project to implement,” she said.
“The project was handed over to me on January 30…on 18 March 2015, the policy was gazetted,” Muthambi stated.
She announced another ambitious deadline for the finalisation of digital migration as December 2018.
30 March 2017 – Muthambi reshuffled
Muthambi was reshuffled and appointed as Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services on 30 March 2017.
Her actions as Minister of Communications – which included allegedly sending confidential information on Cabinet meetings to the Guptas and lying to Parliament about interference at the SABC- could make her the subject of criminal investigations.
May 2017 – “No intention to delay the process”
Ayanda Dlodlo succeeded Muthambi and would serve as minister for just over six months.
Her Budget Vote Speech on 26 May 2017 offered more of the same unimpressive assurances as her predecessors, in which she stated that “significant progress has been made in the implementation of digital terrestrial television.”
August to September 2017 – Ready to meet the deadline
On 6 August 2017, Dlodlo said that she had full appreciation of the impact that digital migration would have on the economy and therefore had “no intention to delay the process.”
On 29 September, she said that the department was “geared to meet that deadline.”
She added that the funding of the project was experiencing difficulties.
8 June 2017 – Muthambi vindicated in Constitutional Court
The matter between e-TV and the Department of Communications culminated in a split judgement delivered by the Constitutional Court on 8 June 2017.
Five of the nine judges found that Muthambi had acted within her rights as minister when she made the decision to amend the BDM policy.
Her decision therefore stood.
2017 – “The 2019 deadline is fixed”
Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane replaced Dlodlo on 17 October 2017 and served for only four months as Minister of Communications, the last to do so under President Jacob Zuma.
On 3 December, she spoke about the slow uptake of subsidised STBs. “I’m a bit confused. People normally like free things,” she joked.
“We have 650,000 STBs sitting in storage that need to find homes, so I am changing our delivery model to make it more viable. I am reworking the roll-out programme,” she said.
She reaffirmed that the department would likely stick with Muthambi’s decision to use non-encrypted STBs.
She emphasised that the ITU’s new deadline of June 2019 was fixed and that South Africa had to meet it.
2018 – Billions more needed
Kubayi-Ngubane told Parliament on 23 January 2018 that the department required an additional R6.6 billion in funding to complete the digital migration process before the June 2019 deadline.
The costs mainly involved the manufacturing and provisioning of government-subsidised STBs, aerials and other equipment.
Kubayi-Ngubane promised she would be able to deliver migration on time if she was given adequate resources.
She would not be given enough time in the post to prove this, however, as she was reshuffled to become Minister of Science and Technology in February 2018.
17 May 2018 – The cost of the delays
On 17 May 2018, Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services Siyabonga Cwele said that the migration policy delay was costing South Africa about R150 million per annum.
June 2018 – Appointment of digital migration head
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a new Cabinet on 26 February 2018 and appointed Nomvula Mokonyane as Minister of Communications.
Speaking at a press conference on 25 June 2018, Mokonyane announced that Sentech’s Aldred Dreyer was appointed to head up to the digital migration project in South Africa.
Additionally, Mokonyane said that the department would appoint a new BDM advisory council.
“The council shall include representatives of both government and industry to ensure that the project is driven in a joint manner in the spirit of inclusivity,” Mokonyane said.
This was done by 9 July 2018.
The council included Dreyer and members from ICASA, Sentech, the SABC, Vodacom, MTN, USAASA, eMedia and MultiChoice.
October 2018 – New analogue switch-off by July 2020
On 19 October 2018, Mokonyane revealed the new deadline for analogue switch-off as July 2020.
She announced that the Free State would be the first province to go fully digital, and would complete analogue switch-off by December 2018.
The date was later postponed to February 2019, but more than one year later, this has still not been completed.
At a subsequent colloquium on 28 October in Bloemfontein, Mokonyane acknowledged that the digital migration delays were proving costly to the government and the industry.
Referring to the Cabinet’s recently-renewed model on STB acquisition, Mokonyane said it would have been “foolhardy” to continue with the old strategy.
“The mere fact that 11 years since Cabinet has approved this project, and we are still this far behind underlines the challenges of the delivery model.”
2018 – Department restructured again
In November 2018, Ramaphosa simplified the structure of the Department of Communications, by merging the ministries of Communication and the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services to form the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.
He appointed newcomer Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams as Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies.
4 December 2018 – Possible delay
On 4 December 2018, Ndabeni-Abrahams said that the new July 2020 analogue switch-off date was not set in stone.
“Although Cabinet has approved July 2020 as the date for analogue switch off, the minister will monitor progress and after consultation with the Cabinet, gazette the date based on the progress made,” she stated.
2019 – Government must reconsider subsidy
In a briefing to the Parliament’s portfolio on communications on 15 March 2019, Ndabeni-Abrahams spoke of the challenges to full digital migration.
Ndabeni-Abrahams remarked that the department did not have the additional R4.9 billion it needed for the subsidised STB roll-out to the remaining 3.7 million qualifying households.
“No minister has finished it or done it successfully. I think it is high time for government to reconsider the approach and the decisions it took in relation to this.”
10 July 2019 – Renewed BDM model to be provided
In her Budget Vote Speech on 10 July 2019, Ndabeni-Abrahams said that a “renewed” BDM model would be provided within 90 days in order to “deal with the swift release of the high-demand spectrum needed for the roll-out of broadband and effective DTT migration.”
The new BDM model was not revealed within the announced three months.
13 November 2019 – Less than half of STBs delivered
In an interview with the SABC Ndabeni-Abrahams highlighted that out of 1.5 million qualifying households that the department had advertised for, only 700,000 had been delivered.
“On top of that we have about 3.5 million that we have not touched,” she said.
December 2019 – Communications overhaul
During a press briefing around major overhauls to the communication industry – including the merging of infrastructure providers Sentech and Broadband Infraco – the minister announced that Newyear Ntuli had been appointed as the administrator of USAASA.
Ntuli’s job would entail the fast-tracking of STB delivery.
However, a week after the announcement, Ndabeni-Abrahams reversed Ntuli’s appointment due to allegations of “misconduct.”
On 29 January, the minister announced that Basil Ford had been appointed as executive caretaker of the agency.
5 February 2020 – Deadline moved to end of 2021
The DoC finally outlined its plans to fast-track digital migration by the end of 2021.
“Progress towards finalising the BDM programme has been very slow, primarily due to the poor pace of household migration to digital platforms,” the DoC acknowledged.
“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.”
The details of its timeframe for digital migration are indicated in the graphic below.