Navigating to MultiChoice’s GOtv website for South Africa, the TV guide is blank, the coverage map points to a server that is no longer online, and clicking on the self-service portal results in a server error.
GOtv launched in South Africa in February 2016, offering low-cost pay TV services over the country’s digital terrestrial television (DTT) network, which uses version two of the Digital Video Broadcasting — Terrestrial standard (DVB–T2).
While South Africa has not fully migrated from analogue to digital terrestrial broadcasting, state-owned signal distributor Sentech has operated a DTT network for the country since as early as 2010.
This is known as “dual illumination”. Sentech has kept analogue and digital TV signals “lit up” in South Africa for more than a decade now.
The dual illumination period was never meant to last this long. After switching on the digital TV signal, the plan was to switch off South Africa’s old analogue signal as quickly as possible to release the “digital dividend”.
Digital Dividend – Why the digital migration is essential for cellular networks
“Digital dividend” is a term coined with the advent of DTT to describe precious radio frequency spectrum that would be freed up when analogue TV transmissions are switched off.
Digital TV requires far less bandwidth than its analogue predecessor. By switching to a digital broadcasting standard, countries are able to release much of the bandwidth old analogue transmission systems used and repurpose it.
Early on the digital dividend was earmarked for cellular network services.
Digital dividend frequencies are particularly well-suited for providing better coverage in rural areas, and offer better indoor penetration in urban areas.
This is because even the highest frequencies used by terrestrial TV broadcasts — Ultra High Frequency, or UHF — are lower than most cellular networks use.
Terrestrial TV transmissions in the UHF band use frequencies between 470 MHz and 862 MHz, whereas the lowest frequencies used by cellular networks in South Africa are over 900 MHz.
Using lower frequencies effectively lets a cellphone tower have a larger coverage footprint, while also providing better signal penetration through walls.
Excuses, excuses, excuses – Analogue switch-off delayed from 2011 to 2022
South Africa was all set to migrate from its analogue PAL-based terrestrial TV broadcasting system to DVB–T in November 2011.
It had taken years to prepare for the analogue switch-off — from the appointment of a digital broadcasting advisory board in 2001, to selecting DVB–T as the best standard for South Africa, to the publication of a policy framework and switch-on of South Africa’s first digital TV signal in 2008.
Digital TV was a major talking point in the lead-up to South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. However, no significant progress was made in the uptake of the technology.
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.
Then, in April 2010, all the work done since 2001 was upended 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 a new Minister of Communications 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 Etv over whether South Africa’s digital TV decoders should include encryption technology.
Secret MultiChoice-SABC anti-encryption deal
Etv 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 Etv and MultiChoice were really fighting about was a government-subsidised entry into the pay-TV arena for Etv.
Signal encryption is essential if you want to offer a pay-TV service, and MultiChoice felt it was unfair that Etv 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 channels SABC News and SABC Encore.
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 Minister of Communications for finally switching off analogue TV in South Africa is January 2022.
The revolution will be streamed
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.
This is a total and utterly inexcusable failure brought about by greed, corruption, incompetence, and cadre deployment.
Broken GOtv website for South Africa
As for the South African website of GOtv — MultiChoice thanked MyBroadband for informing it about the problems with the online TV Guide and coverage map and said that its team is working on it.
“MultiChoice continues to support digital terrestrial television as a technology and we are heavily invested in it, both in SA and the rest of Africa,” a spokesperson for the company said.
“We have kept our activities around GOtv in SA low, due to the delays in the SA digital migration project, which is affecting all broadcasters.”
MultiChoice confirmed that the Sentech DTT network is operational and that it does have subscribers on the GOtv platform.
“We work closely with the relevant authorities and stakeholders in the interest of finally seeing SA migrating [to digital].”