SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE…..In presentations at the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (ICASA) digital dividend workshop in Johannesburg on 7 April, both M-Net and e.tv pointed out that it was premature to talk about how to allocate the digital dividend – the frequency spectrum that will be freed up once South Africa migrates to digital terrestrial television (DTT) – before digital migration was even on the starting blocks.
The date for the commercial launch of DTT is still to be set by the Department of Communications (DoC) in consultation with ICASA. In the meantime, Minister of Communications Roy Padayachie has set the deadline for the switch off of the analogue signal for December 2013.
M-Net’s head of Regulatory Affairs Karen Willenberg stressed that three preliminary issues need to be resolved before ICASA decides how to allocate the digital dividend.
Said Willenberg: “We believe that spectrum is the fuel that will drive change and development in South Africa and that consumer demand will continue to grow. M-Net’s viewpoint on the digital dividend is that certain foundations need to be put in place first. The resolution of what we see as the three preliminary issues – timing, definition, and process – will go a long way in ensuring South Africa’s successful digital migration.
“In terms of timing, some 11 million television households have to be migrated onto the digital platform. The digital dividend is dependent on the analogue switch off, but we haven’t yet switched off the analogue signal. Neither are we in the dual illumination phase, where both analogue and digital signals are broadcast in preparation for the final analogue switch off.
“At this stage the government has not yet finalised a subsidy scheme for set top boxes (STBs) for South Africa’s poorer households, neither is there an STB manufacturing policy in place. M-Net believes that timelines are critical as we need to know when the digital dividend will become available.”
In talking about the second issue – definition – Willenberg pointed out that everyone has a different idea of what digital dividend actually means. “We don’t think it’s correct to say that digital dividend refers to all the freed up spectrum. M-Net maintains that there are two aspects to the digital dividend. There is Dividend 1 (790 MHz), which is for mobile and broadband, while Dividend 2 (the band below 790 MHz) is for broadcasting. With regards Dividend 2 we have to ask whether ICASA will ensure that some spectrum will be used to create new multiplexes and whether it will be for commercial, community or regional TV and how much spectrum will be used for future services like HD or 3D.”
In terms of the third preliminary issue – process – Willenberg specifically meant the management of small blocks of spectrum that will appear once migration from analogue to digital is completed. “So there will need to be a second migration – the digital to digital migration – and this is something that has not been planned for. These small blocks of spectrum need to be arranged into a continuous stream so that they can be properly utilised.”
Lara Kantor, head of e.tv’s Regulatory Affairs, pointed out that e.tv is South Africa’s only private commercial free-to-air broadcaster and has a viewership of 15 million people. “Most e.tv viewers get their signal via analogue terrestrial so the vast majority of South Africans – three out of every four – will need to access STBs. This is an enormous challenge for the country and we feel that the government needs to facilitate and fund the digital migration process. Without this there won’t be a digital dividend.”
Kantor pointed out that the average timeline for migration in European countries has been six years. “Those European countries that achieved migration more quickly than that are ones that had a low number of analogue terrestrial viewers. In South Africa we have the opposite situation – a huge number of analogue terrestrial viewers and so the timelines for migration are very challenging. We’ve already seen multiple delays: two years to finalise the DTT specs and 18 months to agree on the STB specs. Much of 2010 was spent reviewing the DTT transmission standard.
“So South Africa’s digital migration project has lost credibility and momentum. E.tv believes that the challenges of making migration work are now much bigger than before all the delays. But the good news is that the DTT regulations and frequency plan have been published.”
The challenges South Africa faces, continued Kantor, are: the upgrading of the transmission network to DVB-T2 (Digital Video Broadcasting-Terrestrial 2); the STB specs still need to be reviewed by the Standards body; and there is no clarity yet on the launch date.
Kantor commented that the government funding currently in place for digital migration is narrow focused and comes from the Fiscus. E.tv believes that the focus needs to be broader and that additional funds should come from the sale of spectrum.
“Our approach to the digital dividend is two-fold. Firstly there should be agreement on what the digital dividend is, taking broadcasters’ needs into account. We believe that ICASA should licence new multiplexes after migration so that each incumbent broadcaster has its own multiplex. At the moment South Africa’s three broadcasters have been allocated two multiplexes only so we have to share them. Future technology like HD and 3D should also be taken into account.
“Secondly, the focus needs to be on the 790-862 MHz sub-band and it needs to be planned before becoming available for use. E.tv believes ICASA should use a market led approach to licensing this sub-band,” concluded Kantor.
Other companies scheduled to make presentations over the two-day workshop included public service broadcaster SABC, Telkom, MTN, Vodacom, Neotel and Internet Solutions, among others.
Report by Joanna Sterkowicz