Two months left to roll out 250,000 digital decoders — while the same number took 6 years

Communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni says that government has to distribute almost 250,000 more digital set-top boxes (STBs) and install around 450,000 in the next two months.

That is only slightly less than the number of households they had already distributed the decoder-like STBs to since the rollout began more than six years ago.

Ntshavheni revealed this during a recent update on South Africa’s broadcasting digital migration.

The next major target in the digital migration programme is the planned switch-off of analogue TV transmitters across the country by 30 June 2022.

Ntshavheni initially set 31 March as the switch-off date, but the Gauteng High Court delayed it by three months.

SABC and MultiChoice analogue transmitters in five provinces have been switched off — the Free State, Northern Cape, North West, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo.

The process remains ongoing in South Africa’s four most populous provinces of Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape and Eastern Cape.

Without analogue transmissions, households need either a digital STB or TV with a digital tuner to receive free-to-air digital signals.

Alternatively, they can receive their broadcasting via satellite TV providers like DStv, Openview, or StarSat.

For many South Africans, an STB or digitally-enabled TV is unaffordable. Therefore, government is subsidising around a million boxes for households with a combined income of R3,500 or less.

Originally, the plan was to supply 5 million indigent households with subsidised boxes. However, this number has been gradually revised downward — the latest being 1.2 million.

Ntshavheni has explained that this is due to the low rate of registrations for STBs, which could be attributed to many more households “self migrating” to satellite or buying a new TV set with a digital tuner.

Former communications minister Faith Muthambi opened registrations for subsidised STBs in October 2015 and oversaw the first batch’s installation in Keimoes, Northern Cape, in December 2015.

As of 2019, there were reportedly around 900,000 STBs waiting for distribution at Post Offices around the country,

By 31 October 2021, only 507,251 households had registered for an STB. Government had set this as the deadline for needy families to register to receive a subsidised STB before the analogue switch-off.

Of the registered households, only 258,821 had received their STBs by 25 April 2022.

With 67 days between 26 April 2022 and 30 June 2022, the department has to distribute just over 3,700 STBs per day, including weekends and public holidays.

In addition, only around 109,000 STBs had been installed and activated, leaving approximately 450,000 that still need to be activated.

Meeting the deadline would require a radical acceleration considering the pace of the rollout thus far.

Sentech is currently seeking installers. The tender closes on 5 May.

Danger of delays

Should the department fail to install STBs in all qualifying households that registered before the end of October 2021, it could give E-tv and community TV stations like Cape Town TV ammunition to delay the analogue switch-off even further.

These broadcasters warned that millions of households would be cut off unless the analogue switch-off was delayed by several months.

However, Ntshavheni has reiterated that the government remained committed to meeting the 30 June deadline.

The minister said all Gauteng households that qualified for an STB and registered by 31 October 2021 had received and activated their STBs.

Ntshavheni also said that the Northern Cape’s installations should be completed in the next few days.

“Equally, we are on course to completing the remaining installations in the months of May and June 2022,” she added.

Those who registered after the October 2021 deadline are set to receive their STBs by end-September 2022.

The department also plans to place STBs on the retail market for sale to poor households that fall above the R3,500 pre month threshold but cannot afford more expensive equipment.

Now read: DStv channel changes in 2022

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Two months left to roll out 250,000 digital decoders — while the same number took 6 years