A decade late and a dollar short — South Africa’s digital TV hamster wheel

This year, on 1 November 2021, it was ten years since South Africa missed its first deadline to switch off old analogue TV signals occupying precious radio frequency spectrum.

The constant delays have cost South Africa dearly — holding back the issuing of new wireless network capacity in the form of spectrum for a decade.

Called the “digital dividend”, Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C have stated that they could have used this spectrum to improve network coverage and drive down data prices.

Listening to government officials, you might hear talk of a June 2019 deadline. Or perhaps the 17 June 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunications Union.

However, the truth is that South Africa aimed to have 80% digital TV signal coverage in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which kicked off on 11 June that year.

Total switch-off of South Africa’s analogue TV signal would follow on 1 November 2011.

Our government missed both of these deadlines.

What’s even more disappointing is that these deadlines weren’t particularly ambitious. For ten years, South Africa had already been gearing up for the migration from its analogue PAL-based terrestrial TV broadcasting system.

Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri
Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

Late communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri appointed a Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board in 2001.

By the following year, this board had recommended that South Africa switch to the European DVB-T standard.

On 1 June 2007, Matsepe-Casaburri published the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy, and the following year she provided assurances that South Africa was on track to meet the deadlines.

The last major task that remained before South Africa’s analogue switch-off date was producing and distributing DStv decoder-like devices, referred to as set-top boxes (STBs).

These STBs would enable people who don’t have satellite TV to watch the new digital TV signal on their existing television sets.

In February 2010, the first cracks started to show when the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) warned that the analogue switch-off might be delayed to April 2013.

A decade of groundwork, undone

Then, in April 2010, the Department of Communications upended all the work done since 2001 to appease the Brazilian government.

Brazil lobbied our government to switch to the Japanese standard it had adopted, ISDB–T, in the hopes of expanding its DTT ecosystem and licensing its middleware to South Africa.

For the rest of 2010, there was much hand-wringing and think-piece writing over the decision by the Department of Communications to consider switching South Africa from DVB–T to ISDB–T.

Logic eventually prevailed, and the late Minister Roy Padayachie announced at the start of 2011 that South Africa would not be switching to ISDB–T but to the newer version of the European standard, DVB–T2.

Everything seemed back on track, except for one big red flag — the government’s dithering over the standards had given it an excuse to extend the analogue switch-off deadline from November 2011 to December 2013.

This set off a chain reaction of delays and missed deadlines, and ignited an acrimonious feud between MultiChoice and E-tv over whether South Africa’s digital TV decoders should include encryption technology.

Roy Padayachie

Secret MultiChoice-SABC anti-encryption deal

E-tv argued that without signal encryption, South Africa’s government-subsidised STBs would simply be scalped, below the cost price, in other countries that have adopted the DVB-T2 standard.

MultiChoice argued that Etv’s concerns were overblown and could be mitigated in other ways, and that including encryption features in the government-subsidised STBs would needlessly increase their cost price.

This would make it more expensive for South Africa’s poorest households to acquire an STB for digital TV, MultiChoice said.

Both these arguments were a smokescreen.

What E-tv and MultiChoice were really fighting about was a government-subsidised entry into the pay-TV arena for E-tv.

Signal encryption is essential if you want to offer a pay-TV service, and MultiChoice felt it was unfair that E-tv would not have to fund the development and distribution of its own pay-TV decoder.

As the companies duked it out in the media, and eventually in court, MultiChoice and its allies splurged on full-page advertisements in the Sunday newspapers to decry the government’s decision to include encryption technology in government-subsidised digital TV decoders.

Between 2015 and 2017, investigative journalists exposed the terms of the commercial agreement between MultiChoice and the SABC that ensured the SABC’s allegiance to MultiChoice’s anti-encryption campaign.

MultiChoice’s deal with the SABC was mainly about how much it would pay to carry the SABC News and SABC Encore channels.

However, it also included a provision that allowed MultiChoice to suspend the agreement if the SABC encrypted its channels on digital terrestrial television platforms.

Having the state broadcaster in MultiChoice’s corner complicated matters for the government, which was trying to push ahead with existing STB standards that included encryption.

All of this resulted in missed deadlines compounding upon missed deadlines, to the point that more than a decade later, South Africa’s digital migration will still not be done.

The latest deadline announced by the former Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abraham, is January 2022.

South Africa’s digital TV migration deadlines — from 2006 to 2022
Deadline Milestone Outcome
31 December 2006 Digital migration strategy delivery Missed
1 June 2007 Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy (BDMP) publication Missed
8 September 2008 Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy (BDMP) published Delivered late
1 November 2008 Digital terrestrial television switch-on On-time
11 June 2010 80% digital TV signal coverage by FIFA World Cup Missed
1 November 2011 Analogue terrestrial TV switch-off — initial deadline (per Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri) Missed
30 April 2013 Potential analogue terrestrial TV switch-off (per ICASA) Missed
31 December 2013 New analogue terrestrial TV switch-off deadline (per Minister Roy Padayachie) Missed
17 June 2015 ITU deadline for analogue switch-off Missed
31 December 2018 New analogue terrestrial TV switch-off deadline (per Muthambi) Missed
30 June 2019 New analogue terrestrial TV switch-off deadline (per Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane) Missed
31 July 2020 New analogue terrestrial TV switch-off deadline (per Minister Nomvula Mokonyane) Missed
31 December 2021 New analogue terrestrial TV switch-off deadline (per Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams) Will miss
31 January 2022 Latest analogue terrestrial TV switch-off deadline (per Ndabeni-Abrahams, affirmed by Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni) Pending

In fairness to Ndabeni-Abrahams and current minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, much progress has been made in the past year.

In March this year, Ndabeni-Abrahams announced the following new deadlines for South Africa’s analogue switch-off.

Ntshavheni has since revised the timelines and has completely switched off the SABC’s transmitters in two provinces.

  • Free State — March 2021Switched off in November
  • Northern Cape — April 2021Switched off in November
  • North West — May 2021Delayed to December
  • Mpumalanga — May 2021Delayed to end Dec / start Jan
  • Eastern Cape — May 2021Delayed to January
  • Kwa-Zulu Natal — July 2021Delayed to January
  • Western Cape — November 2021Delayed to January
  • Limpopo — December 2021Pending
  • Gauteng — January 2022Pending

Unfortunately, state signal distributor Sentech can’t switch off E-tv’s analogue transmitters yet as the broadcaster is locked in a legal tussle with the minister over the switch-off.

E-tv wants the whole process delayed by 12–15 months.

The free-to-air station is worried that the switch-off will leave many impoverished households behind.

This would cause E-tv’s viewership to drop and hurt its bottom line.

Ntshavheni said that her office is constantly communicating with E-tv and that she is sure they will reach a compromise.

She is confident that Sentech has the capacity to switch off all E-tv’s analogue transmitters in two months.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni
Khumbudzo Ntshavheni

The revolution will be streamed

While recent progress in South Africa’s digital TV migration is welcome, a ten-year delay in the tech world is a death sentence.

After all the blood, sweat, and lawyers’ fees that have gone into the digital migration, it is sad to see South Africa’s DVB–T2 system relegated to little more than a white elephant.

Years of bureaucratic hell have eroded away any value digital terrestrial TV might have had for our country.

The revolution will not be broadcast — it is being streamed over the Internet.

Yet, the greater tragedy is how the digital dividend has been held hostage for no good reason.

For ten years, South Africa has squandered the opportunity to improve connectivity and drive down cellular prices for millions of South Africans instead of simply unlocking this precious radio spectrum.

Now read: 13 ministers in 13 years

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A decade late and a dollar short — South Africa’s digital TV hamster wheel