A performance agreement between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams revealed that the target for implementing the digital migration programme is March 2023.
The Presidency said this agreement aims to strengthen the capacity of the state and increase accountability.
This target comes after Ndabeni-Abrahams said in September the government is planning to complete the country’s digital migration process by the end of 2021.
Her comments followed the department’s acting DG, Nomvuyiso Batyi’s statement that South Africa will only complete digital migration by 2022.
It is currently not clear whether digital migration will happen in 2021, 2022, or 2023. What is clear is what a complete mess this process has been.
South Africa’s digital migration process started in 2001 and the government proudly announced it would be completed by November 2011.
Not only did this not happen, but South Africa also missed the ITU’s 17 June 2015 deadline for analogue broadcast switch-off.
Since then, one deadline after the other was missed while the country remained in desperate need of broadband spectrum which will be freed up by this process.
What is particularly worrisome is that South Africans have been promised again and again that the digital migration process was on track.
These lies have become so commonplace that nobody even bats an eyelid when another deadline is missed.
If you are wondering how the government could mess the digital migration process up so spectacularly, the answer is the usual “incompetence and corruption”.
The bribery and corruption were mainly related to the standards and procurement of five million set-top boxes.
The biggest problem, however, was instability and incompetence in the communications department.
Over the last twelve years, the Department of Communications had twelve ministers, many of whom were involved in questionable activities.
The lack of continuity in the department and the poor calibre of ministers caused serious damage to the industry. Digital migration and spectrum allocation were two noteworthy casualties.
The importance of digital migration
Digital migration is an essential step towards better mobile broadband in South Africa, as the process will free valuable digital dividend spectrum.
Digital dividend spectrum, the 700MHz – 800MHz band that can only be allocated once the digital migration in South Africa is completed, can play a key role in reducing data prices.
Because of its lower frequency (in comparison with 2,100MHz, for example) it is excellent to provide rural and indoor LTE coverage.
In the absence of digital dividend spectrum, operators have had to re-farm spectrum and build significantly more towers at great expense to provide LTE services.
The higher network rollout costs are recovered from consumers in the form of higher mobile data prices.
Mobile operators have committed to data price cuts when additional spectrum is allocated, and digital migration is therefore a key component in lowering data prices.
Empty promises and lies by politicians
To fully understand the frustration by industry players about the delayed digital migration process, one only has to look at what politicians said over the past fifteen years.
Here is a summary of comments by communications ministers and other politicians about the digital migration process.
|Digital Migration Promises|
|Who||When||What they said|
|Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri||June 2008||The digital migration process was on track to meet the deadlines.|
|Siphiwe Nyanda||October 2009||The government is on track to reaching full digital migration by November 2011.|
|Siphiwe Nyanda||October 2010||South Africa is on track to begin migrating to digital television broadcasting in 2011.|
|Roy Padayachee||September 2011||South Africa is still on track for digital migration.|
|November 2011 Deadline Missed|
|Dina Pule||May 2012||The switch to digital television broadcasting is on track.|
|Siyabonga Cwele||July 2014||The final broadcasting digital migration policy would be published by the end of the month. This did not happen.|
|17 June 2015 ITU Deadline Missed|
|Faith Muthambi||August 2015||The digital migration programme is on track.`|
|Faith Muthambi||September 2016||The broadcasting digital migration project is well on track.|
|Ayanda Dlodlo||May 2017||Significant progress has been made in the implementation of digital terrestrial television.|
|Ayanda Dlodlo||August 2017||There is no intention to delay the process to complete the digital migration process by December 2018.|
|Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane||December 2017||The new deadline of June 2019 was fixed and South Africa had to meet it.|
|Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane||January 2018||Kubayi-Ngubane promised she would be able to deliver migration on time if she was given adequate resources.|
|Nomvula Mokonyane||October 2018||A new deadline for analogue switch-off was announced – July 2020.|
|December 2018 Deadline Missed|
|Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams||December 2018||Ndabeni-Abrahams said the new July 2020 analogue switch-off date was not set in stone.|
|June 2019 Deadline Missed|
|Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams||February 2020||The DoC outlined its plans to fast-track digital migration by the end of 2021.|
|July 2020 Deadline Missed|
|Nomvuyiso Batyi||September 2020||South Africa will only complete digital migration by 2022.|
|Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams||September 2020||The government is still planning to complete the country’s digital migration process by the end of 2021.|
|Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams||December 2020||Implement the digital migration programme by March 2023.|
The performance agreement between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is embedded below.
This is an opinion piece.