We can shut off E-tv’s old TV signal in two months — Minister

Sentech switched off all 84 of M-Net’s old analogue terrestrial television sites in two months, and the state-owned signal distributor can shut down E-tv’s remaining transmitters in the same amount of time.

This is according to communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who provided an update on South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

E-tv owner eMedia Holdings has taken the minister to court over concerns that South Africa is switching off analogue TV broadcasts too aggressively.

While eMedia believes that the analogue switch-off must happen, CEO Khalik Sherrif said it is “absolutely unachievable” to do it by January 2022.

This is because there is a set-top (STB) box shortage, a global chip shortage contributing to the box shortage, and unrealistic timeframes to roll out set-top boxes to households who need them.

Set-top boxes are decoder-like devices that allow old TVs with built-in analogue receivers to pick up South Africa’s digital TV signal.

Sherrif is concerned that households relying on terrestrial TV signals would be cut off before they could get an STB or new digital-compatible TV.

This would cause a dramatic decline in E-tv’s viewership, which would harm eMedia’s short-term revenue.

Instead of a switch-off by January 2022, Sherrif said that eMedia proposed a plan to complete the digital TV migration in 15–18 months.

Khalik Sherrif, eMedia Holdings CEO

This would substantially impact South Africa’s plans to reclaim and licence the sought-after radio frequency spectrum occupied by these TV transmissions, known as the “digital dividend”.

Analogue TV signals occupy prime spectrum that cellular network operators want to offer 4G and 5G services.

Telkom and Rain, in particular, are after these frequencies, as they do not currently have lower-frequency assignments below the 1GHz range.

Responding to questions after her address on Wednesday, Ntshavheni assured that there is no shortage of STBs and no animosity between her department and eMedia.

“It’s part of what we are entitled to as South Africans… When we disagree, we can go to the courts to be the final arbiter,” Ntshavheni said.

She said they have exchanged papers and are ready for the hearing, set for the first week of February 2022.

In the meantime, eMedia and the Ministry are working together on the digital migration and trying to find common ground, the minister stated.

“I think we will find each other at some point and get a plan that will get everybody to come through.”

Sentech tower in Johannesburg

On the issue of households being cut off and concerns over an STB shortage, Ntshavheni said that she embarked on extensive media engagements to inform communities about the migration.

Ntshavheni said she delivered messages in nine of South Africa’s eleven languages on radio stations around the country. Her message was translated into the other two languages.

Despite this extensive coverage, the number of households registering for digital TV decoders did not increase.

This is because of two reasons, said Ntshavheni:

  1. 11 million households are already watching TV through satellite
  2. Millions more already have DTT-compliant television sets

While E-tv may still disagree that all needy households will be entirely migrated by the end of January, Ntshavheni said the broadcaster has considered that equipment manufacturers are no longer making components for analogue technology.

“If lightning decides to scrap all the analogue transmitters, the country will have a blackout,” the minister stated.

Sentech can be as good as it wants, but component manufacturers last had stock of analogue components in 2015, she said.

Now read: First province in South Africa completes analogue TV switch-off

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We can shut off E-tv’s old TV signal in two months — Minister