So ANN7 may soon be off the air, but will that solve South Africa’s migration to digital terrestrial television (DTT) and deliver the much needed digital dividend frequencies?
Multichoice, and its parent Naspers, are adamant that their investment in ANN7 and the SABC 24 hour news channel was not a lobbying tool to get government to agree that the new digital services should be encrypted and not open as originally planned.
When the ANN7 story broke in the media, MultiChoice launched an investigation. In one of its statements the company said “No correlation was found between payments made to ANN7 and the MultiChoice lobbying effort”.
However, the investigators proposed that MultiChoice should study international best practice and formalise its lobbying processes. Is this a disguised admission that lobbying efforts were not above board? Did Naspers not really know what was happening or was it convenient to look the other way?
In March 2014 the then Minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi announced that cabinet had approved the digital migration policy supporting open access. The policy was shrouded in secrecy.
From an unofficial document it was clear that it was a cut-and-paste effort with input from other interested groups including MultiChoice. Under normal circumstances that would have been perfectly acceptable, as MultiChoice was one of the interested parties. Some concerns were expressed at the time and now we know why!
DTT and the encryption saga made several turns in the courts. In 2016 the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) ruled in favour of encryption. Muthambi, the SABC, and M-Net then filed applications with the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal the SCA ruling. eTV and others, including the Support Public Broadcasting Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa opposed the appeal.
On 8 June 2017 the Constitutional Court upheld the appeal by Muthambi against last year’s judgement of the SCA which had ruled in favour of encrypted decoders.
In the same ruling the SCA had ruled that a clause in an amendment to the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) policy was unlawful and invalid, and set aside the provision in the policy that suggested government-subsidised set-top boxes (STBs) would not have encryption capability.
This final ruling over the technical specifications of STBs heralded the finalisation of the much-delayed digital migration process. South Africa has been planning for digital migration since 2008 but missed the June 2015 ITU agreed deadline to switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television.
However, the future of DTT is still unclear. After the president’s famous midnight cabinet reshuffle last year, Ayanda Dlodlo was appointed the Minister of Communication.
Shortly after her appointment she announced that she would introduce the encrypted form of DTT in line with the policy of the ANC. She also said she would fast-track the switchover and announced that the process would start from December 2017.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) appealed to Dlodlo to consider its request for a thorough review of the migration process following the Constitutional Court’s ruling. According to the DA, production of the first manufacture of 1,5-million decoders was halted in late 2015 because of legal challenges to the policy.
More than 500 000 decoders had been produced and are housed in South African Post Office warehouses awaiting distribution. But Ayanda Dlodlo’s life as DoC minister was short-lived. Ms Mmamoloko “Nkhensani” Kubayi took over in October last year.
Where does this leave DTT and the much-needed digital dividend frequencies to connect the rural unconnected South Africans? Who knows? It is mind boggling!