Big step to free airwaves for 4G and 5G in South Africa

State-owned signal distributor Sentech has officially switched off all terrestrial analogue television transmissions above 694MHz, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies announced Monday.

Communications minister Mondli Gungubele and his deputy Philly Mapulane flicked the ceremonial switch at Sentech’s Stellenbosch transmitter on 31 July 2023.

The switch-off represents the first stage of the conclusion of South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial TV (DTT) — 13 years late.

Crucially, the migration will free radio frequency spectrum that mobile network operators can use to expand the capacity and coverage of their 4G and 5G networks.

This is known as the “digital dividend”.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) already held an auction for a significant portion of digital dividend spectrum in March last year.

However, as part of a compromise with network operators, they did not have to pay until they could use the frequencies.

Operators bid billions for the spectrum. For example, Telkom is paying R1.5 billion for 20MHz of bandwidth in the 800MHz digital dividend frequency band.

In contrast, it only bid R609 million for 22MHz of spectrum in the 3500MHz frequency band.

The amounts other operators paid for their digital dividend spectrum aren’t known, as only their totals were provided at the end of the auction.

For example, Rain bid over a billion rand for 20MHz bandwidth in 700MHz and 10MHz in the much higher-frequency 2600MHz band.

However, Telkom’s bid on the 800MHz spectrum compared to how much it paid for its 3500MHz bandwidth indicates how much more valuable the lower-frequency spectrum is.

The reason for this is simple — there is less lower-frequency spectrum available. It is also attractive for creating large coverage areas and providing better signal penetration through walls.

Assuming all analogue transmissions above 694MHz have indeed been switched off, it would be the first digital migration deadline the South African government has hit in nearly 15 years.

The last milestone delivered on time was when Sentech first switched on South Africa’s digital TV signal on 1 November 2008.

Late communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri set South Africa’s analogue switch-off date for 1 November 2011.

The country was also supposed to have 80% digital TV signal coverage for the FIFA World Cup by 11 June 2010 — also missed.

Beset by indecision, incompetence, vested interests, corruption, and maladministration, deadline after deadline came and went.

South Africa was left with egg on its face on 17 June 2015 when it missed the International Telecommunication Union deadline for switching off analogue TV signals.

The migration was stuck in limbo for more than five years after that. The communications ministry had a revolving door as former president Jacob Zuma appointed and fired a new minister almost annually.

Each new communications minister announced a switch-off deadline that the next minister delayed.

The Zuma administration botched South Africa’s digital migration project and completely squandered any opportunities it may have offered.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, security minister in the Presidency

Only after President Cyril Ramaphosa came to power and appointed Khumbudzo Ntshavheni into the portfolio did meaningful progress start happening.

Although some criticised Ntshavheni’s approach as reckless, it got results.

E-tv brought legal action to slow down the analogue switch-off, fearing it would lose viewers if it happened on 31 March 2022, as Ntshavheni initially intended.

The case ultimately went to the Constitutional Court, and Ramaphosa moved Ntshavheni out of the communications portfolio to oversee the security cluster from a ministry inside the Presidency.

However, Ramaphosa sent another trusted lieutenant — Gungubele — to finish the job.

Gungubele implemented a compromise suggested by E-tv and others, switching off South Africa’s analogue signals in two phases.

This frees up the spectrum auctioned to mobile operators, giving them the network capacity they’ve pleaded for and injecting billions of rand into the national fiscus.

The second stage of the switch-off, where analogue TV transmissions below 694MHz will finally meet their end, is scheduled for 31 December 2024.

Now read: Icasa to appoint consultant for 4G and 5G spectrum auction

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Big step to free airwaves for 4G and 5G in South Africa