“It is an uphill battle for Africa to complete the migration from analogue broadcasting to digital terrestrial television (DTT) by 2015, the deadline set by the international Telecommunications Union (ITU) and I can’t see that any country will meet this deadline.’
So said Dr Mashilo Boloka, director Broadcasting Policy at South Africa’s Department of Communications, at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) Digital Broadcasting Switchover Forum (DBSF) held in Johannesburg in February, Dr Boloka maintained that South Africa had not made “big strides’ in its digital migration project.
“I’m concerned about our broken momentum. Meanwhile, east Africa began its migration process well after us and they’re making good progress. Now South Africa, which has been in DTT trials since November 2008, has less than three years left to meet the ITU deadline after which Africa’s analogue signal will no longer be protected.
“There may be a headlong rush to do it without proper planning. Job creation may go out of the window and we may not be able to build content industries. And what about universal access to the DTT signal? If we throw out all our development goals what does that do to public investment? I believe that migration should be a legacy project,’ stated Dr Boloka.
He noted that when digital migration planning commenced in South Africa in 2005 there were dedicated people attached to the project and the government and TV industry worked well together. “Now most of those people are gone and the industry has divided interests. There have been many changes in administration and priorities at the DOC since 2005, which has adversely affected projects like DTT.’
On 22 March Minister of Communications Dina Pule formally launched the public awareness campaign to educate the South African public about the impending migration to DTT. The Minister confirmed that the commercial launch of DTT would take place in the third quarter of this year.
At the CTO Forum Dr Boloka pointed out the emerging risks associated with DTT: immense cost of migration; readiness of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) broadcasters to fund new channels; accessible information for the public and raising awareness around the benefits of DTT; and a potential flood of non-compliant digital TVs and set top boxes (STBs).
“We need decisive regulators to deal with competing interests,’ continued Boloka. “Regulators must aggressively drive the DTT project in the public interest. What about the original value proposition of DTT to the consumer — the diversity of local content as opposed to programme repeats and foreign content?
“There is also the issue of escalating costs versus ongoing economic downturns and declining revenues. In South Africa how we will deal with STB subsidies for poor households is going to be a big challenge, not to mention the administration costs involved. It’s easy to make decisions but difficult to implement them. Plus there is an ever increasing number of TV owning households in South Africa.
“In terms of nationwide DTT coverage, areas like the Northern Cape are vast with sparse populations so terrestrial transmission will be very expensive. Satellite may be a better option for these non-primary markets.’
He revealed that the South African government has allocated over R2.1bn to parastatal signal distributor Sentech, public broadcaster SABC and for STB subsidies.
“We need to revise our DTT plans for a lasting public contribution. Critical actions such as these require regionalisation and the creation of economies of scale in manufacturing capacity. African countries must build viable and bigger content markets, share skills and relax policies to foster regional integration. Ownership and control rules and local content quotas are both regional and continent issues,’ concluded Boloka.
According to figures in Russell Southwood’s Balancing Act, an online publication, only five out of 54 countries in Africa have launched DTT; 10 countries are in the pilot stage; 20 countries are doing nothing; and the status is unknown in the remaining countries.
By Joanna Sterkowicz
Screen Africa magazine- May 2012