Deadline schmeadline: Digital TV and the DoC

Communications minister Dina Pule told South Africa this week (8 May 2012) that the Department of Communications “made substantial progress towards the implementation of the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy”.

This announcement should be good news, but if you know the history of digital TV migration in South Africa you will know that talk is cheap with the DoC.

Over the years the DoC has failed to meet so many deadlines that one can hardly take any promises from the department seriously.

If you don’t know what we are talking about, here is a quick history lesson regarding the DoC’s digital migration process.

The quotations that follow come from the Department of Communications annual budget vote speeches delivered by the minister of communications (Cheeky editorial comments are in red.)

2001 – Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri
Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

The Minister appoints the Digital Broadcasting Advisory Board (DBAB). Among other things, the DBAB investigates the various digital terrestrial television standards.

2002 – Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

The DBAB produces a report recommending that South Africa should adopt the terrestrial version of the Digital Video Broadcasting standard, or DVB-T, which was developed in Europe. (This is significant, so keep it in the back of your mind as you read on.)

It is also worth noting that South Africa’s satellite broadcasters use the DVB family of standards for their services.

2004 – Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

  • “We will be piloting a policy framework for the migration from analogue to the digital broadcasting system.”
  • “By the end of this year (2004) a complete strategy for migration will be announced.” (Missed deadline number one.)

2005 – Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

  • “I hereby announce my intention to establish a Digital Broadcasting Migration Working Group comprised of representatives from the industry, the regulator, consumers, business and government.”
  • “Inputs to and the report from the Digital Broadcasting Migration Working Group will culminate in a national strategy for the migration of broadcasting systems from analogue to digital. Its composition and Terms of Reference will be announced in June 2005.” (But in 2004 the DoC said that “by the end of that year (2004) a complete strategy for migration would have been announced”.)

2006 – Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

  • “In my speech last year I indicated that I would be establishing a Digital Migration Working Group. I’m happy to report that the Working Group was indeed formed and has been doing its work.”
  • “The Digital Migration Strategy is one of our priority areas of work that will be concluded later this year.” (Concluded? Minister, you’d barely got started by this stage.)

2007 – Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

  • “The Cabinet has approved that the digital signal be switched on 1 November 2008.”
  • “The analogue signal should be switched off in November 2011.” (Deadline missed… completely.)
  • “The Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy will be gazetted on the 1st of June 2007.” (The final policy was actually Gazetted on 8 September 2008.)
  • “Sentech is on schedule to meet government’s commitment by providing about 80% Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) coverage by 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup.” (This has still not happened. In fact, Sentech’s coverage target has been stuck on “60% by next March” since 2009.)
  • “Sentech intends to launch at least one high definition television (HDTV) satellite channel, in time for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.” (Was this actually a real plan? Anyway, it did not happen.)
  • “We have established a body to oversee the roll-out of digital migration in South Africa and we have called it the Digital Dzonga.” (It was disbanded by Siphiwe Nyanda two years later due to potential conflict of interest.)

2008 – Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri

  • “The Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) process is on track.” (Really? All proof to the contrary.)
  • “The dates for the switch on of the digital signal and switch off of the analogue signal have been decided and announced as November 2008 and November 2011 respectively.”

2009 – Siphiwe Nyanda

Siphiwe Nyanda
Siphiwe Nyanda

As if things weren’t bad enough under Ivy, under “The General” the wheels came off completely.

  • “Significant progress has been made to meet [the] 1 November 2011 analogue switch off date.” (If this was true, why on Earth did the deadline have to be extended by at least two years?).
  • “On 30 October 2008 the digital signal was switched on. This milestone marked the commencement of the dual illumination period for South Africa.” (Credit where it’s due: broadcasters actually did start DVB-T transmissions.)

2010 – Siphiwe Nyanda

  • “As part of our broadcasting digital migration plan, I have recently disbanded the Digital Dzonga due to potential conflict of interest that has arisen with some of the Council members.”
  • Sentech will continue with the rollout of the DTT infrastructure. Sentech is critical in the provision of digital terrestrial television. Its target is to reach 60% population coverage by the end of the financial year 2010/11.” (Did you forget that the DoC said in 2007 that Sentech was on schedule to provide about 80% Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) coverage by the advent of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup?)

Though it won’t be mentioned in future ministerial budget vote speeches, the DoC completely derailed South Africa’s digital migration process by scrapping the standard that had been recommended back in 2002.

Lest we forget, the director-general of the DoC at the time was Mamodupi Mohlala, who now heads up the National Consumer Commission. Mohlala was the one quoted as saying that the standards were up for discussion again.

The next Minister of Communications, the late Roy Padayachie, later confirmed that South Africa halted its digital migration and re-opened the standards debate because Brazil had asked us to.

2011 – Roy Padayachie

Roy Padayachie
Roy Padayachie

Although Roy Padayachie has his own fair share of broken promises to answer for, his stint as Minister of Communications will be remembered for how he chased the deadlines set by his incompetent predecessors, even though they were completely impossible for him, his department, or ICASA to achieve anymore.

Considering the hand he was dealt, one could easily argue that Roy did very well in his short time as Minister of Communications. Roy, you will be missed.

  • “In December 2010, Cabinet reaffirmed its decision to adopt the DVB-T standard for the process of digital migration. Accordingly, Cabinet adopted the preferred standard of DVB-T2, an upgrade of DVB-T.” (A close call after the DoC tried to force another standard on SA under the guise of “relooking the standard issue” even after cabinet approved DVB-T. This derailed SA’s digital migration, causing a completely unforeseen delay while threatening to undo years of work and millions of investment.)
  • “December 2013 is the new analogue switch-off date, with a view to allow the period between 2013 and 2015 to address any challenge that may arise towards the ITU deadline of 2015” (So how could everything have been on track since 2007 as promised by the DoC? If it was on track, why was the November 2011 deadline missed so spectacularly? Also, the December 2013 date is now up in the air again.)

2012 – Dina Pule

DoC Team - Rosey Sekese, Dina Pule, Themba Phiri
Dina Pule flanked by Rosey Sekese (left) and Themba Phiri (right)
  • “We made substantial progress towards the implementation of the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy. In February 2012, final amendments to the Broadcasting Migration Policy were published in the government gazette for implementation by various role players.” (Thanks minister Pule, but I hope you can excuse us for taking this promise with a pinch of salt. We have, after all, heard the same thing since 2007).
  • “The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has commenced with the process to finalise the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) regulations. It is envisaged that the final gazette will be published in June 2012.” (Ooh look! Another deadline.)
  • “The SABS Standard, according to which locally manufactured set top boxes will be built, has been completed and is currently undergoing public consultation in a process led by the SABS. This Standard will be finalised by the end of May 2012.” (So let me get this straight. The DoC wanted to switch off analogue TV signals by November 2011, but the standard to which digital TV boxes will be built will only be ready by May 2012?)
  • “We shall finalise the selection process of suitable set-top-box manufacturers in the first quarter of the 2012/2013 financial year.” (So you will select set top box manufacturers a year later than when you planned to switch off analogue TV. I guess people could have lived without TV for a year or two).
  • “I want to affirm to this House that we are on course on the DTT process”. (Really – are they exactly as on course as in 2007, 2008 and 2009 when it was on track to meet the November 2011 analogue switch off deadline?)
  • “Sentech has already achieved digital signal coverage of more than 60% of the population on the DVB-T2 transmission standard”. (Wow – excellent. I thought the DoC said in 2007 that ‘Sentech is on schedule to meet government’s commitment by providing about 80% Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) coverage by the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup.  At least we can look forward to some new targets for next year and not just “60% by March <insert year here>”.)

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Deadline schmeadline: Digital TV and the DoC