Johannesburg - Don't do it! It'll set the country back five years and cost a fortune! This was the anguished cry from e-tv and M-Net at a joint press conference on Tuesday over government's about-face on the technology standard for digital TV.
Ten years of detailed examination, two government-initiated reviews and R250m have been invested in choosing the technical standard for the migration from analogue broadcasting to digital terrestrial television (DTT). The migration has to happen by 2015, a deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union, or SA will be completely without television.
Planning for the introduction of digital, which delivers a far superior signal using 65% of the bandwidth, began in 2000. Two reviews were conducted before the DVB-T standard, the most widely used in the world, was approved by cabinet and adopted in 2008. By early 2010, trials had been conducted, production of set-top boxes was ready to begin, and it was all systems go for introduction in nine months or so.
Then came the government bombshell. The department of communications called for another review and indicated a preference for a different standard, ISDB-T, developed by Japan and used in only one other country, Brazil.
"The success of the migration to digital hangs in the balance," said M-Net CEO Patricia Scholtemeyer. "We have been running a successful trial for two years now. The network is operating effectively. The DVB standard works and our trials have confirmed this. This last-minute about-turn could derail all the gains made to date."
The broadcasters say there are "no problems with DVB-T, and no benefits in changing to ISDB".
Viewers won't be happy either, as the set-top boxes for the new system – lacking economies of scale because so few countries use it – cost about twice as much as those for DVB-T.
The upgraded version of the standard, DVB-T2, is considered by the broadcasters to be "far superior" to ISDB-T, with an ability to carry 50% more TV channels.
But there's another deadline which may be missed, with even broader ramifications.
The International Telecommunications Union has decreed that all analogue broadcasting must stop by 2015. If a digital system is not in place by the switch-off date, South Africa's nine million TV households will become TV-free zones. They will not have any television at all.
As things stand, the country has just enough time to meet the 2015 deadline if the decision to switch to the new standard was made tomorrow and work began immediately. But the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly. It could be another year before the review is completed, which would cause us to miss the 2015 deadline.
We would also miss out on the "digital dividend" which comes from a system that uses half the bandwidth, freeing up capacity for cellphone and other users.
The CEO of e-tv, Marcel Golding, likened government's 11th-hour action to that of a wedding guest shouting his objection during the ceremony. "It's as if you're about to make your vows after living together for eight years, and someone from the back of the church says the bride is not good enough," he said.
"This is not in the collaborative, consultative and participatory style of our process so far. Now it becomes quasi-unilateral."