Digital TV migration in South Africa – behind schedule, but happening

Government and analogue broadcasters have fallen behind on plans to switch off analogue TV transmitters in preparation for South Africa’s migration to digital TV.

Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa in his SONA address announced that the phased switch-off of analogue transmitters would begin in March this year, with an aim to have completed digital migration by March 2022.

Following this, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies revealed the timeline for the switch-off in each province with the Free State being the first in line.

“The switch-off in each province will be systematic and in phases, moving from one analogue transmitter coverage area to the other, until all district municipalities within the province are completed,” the department stated.

It outlined the estimated phased switch-off dates for each province as follows:

  • Free State – March 2021
  • Northern Cape – April 2021
  • North West – May 2021
  • Mpumalanga – May 2021
  • Eastern Cape – May 2021
  • KwaZulu-Natal – July 2021
  • Western Cape – November 2021
  • Limpopo –  December 2021
  • Gauteng – January 2022

The analogue signal switch-off began in the Free State in March as planned, with the department and broadcasters working together to complete the process.

Boesmanskop and surrounding towns in the Xhariep District Municipality were the first to be switched off on 15 March, followed by Ladybrand and surrounding towns on 16 March.

However, as of this week, analogue switch-off in the province was still not completed.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams was still switching off analogue transmitters in Bethlehem’s Dihlabeng Local Municipality on Monday 17 May.

The department said this brought the total number of analogue towers switched off in the Free State to 17.

Only one high power analogue site – Bloemfontein – is still transmitting in the province.

Meanwhile, the switch-off had also started in the Northern Cape and North West, putting the total number of sites which have been turned off at 32.

This represents 40% of the planned sites in the three priority provinces of the Free State, Northern Cape, and North West.

Based on the department’s original timeline, the Free State and Northern Cape should have been completed by now, while switch-off in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape should have started in May.

Analogue TV antenna

The delay should not come as a surprise to South Africans, given the country’s failure to stick to deadlines on digital TV migration over the last two decades.

While the progress made in the Free State is a step in the right direction, it is far from an exemplary performance from the Department of Communications.  The switch-off was originally scheduled to happen by December 2018.

MyBroadband asked the department for comment, but they were unable to respond by the time of publication.

One possible reason for the slow progress could be because many people still rely on analogue broadcasts and don’t have the required digital decoder to receive digital broadcasts.

The Post Office recently reported a surge in members of the public requesting a subsidised digital TV decoder.  These free decoders are available to households with an income of less than R3,200 per month, or who receive social grants from Sassa.

The requests emerged after the SABC started to show a scrolling message on its analogue broadcasts which advised viewers to apply for these decoders to be able to watch digital transmissions.

The increase in applications could be an indication that many people are still accessing free-to-air channels via analogue broadcasts.

Now read: Free digital TV decoders – Who qualifies, and how to get it

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Digital TV migration in South Africa – behind schedule, but happening