Minister Faith Muthambi on the sidelines of a Print Media Transformation Colloquium in Freedom Park, Tshwane. (Gareth van Zyl, Fin24)
Pretoria - Communications Minister Faith Muthambi is hoping that South Africa’s plan to switch to digital television broadcasts will be at an advanced stage by the end of 2018.
Digital migration is set to move public broadcaster the SABC from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT) signals and open up radio frequency spectrum for faster mobile internet services.
However, it’s been over a year since South Africa missed an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) deadline on June 17 2015 to switch over to digital broadcasts.
South Africa’s government, though, has started to implement the migration in selected areas, such as around the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project in the Northern Cape.
As part of this migration, government is distributing subsidised set-top boxes to around 5 million poorer households. These boxes convert digital signals for analogue television sets.
Muthambi, on the sidelines of a Print Media Transformation Colloquium in Tshwane on Thursday, told Fin24 that the South African Development Community (SADC) has already committed to a revised June 2018 digital migration deadline.
"So, ourselves as well, we have put end of 2018 to say we should have at least moved inches,” Muthambi told Fin24 regarding government digital migration plans.
The minister, though, said the migration also depends on the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa).
Usaasa is responsible for the roll-out of subsidised digital TV set-top boxes, but it reports to the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services.
Set-top box saga
A key factor behind South Africa’s delayed digital migration process has been fierce debate over whether set-top boxes should have a control mechanism for encrypted signals.
Upon a legal challenge from broadcaster e.tv, Bloemfontein’s Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in June ruled that government’s recent decision not to encrypt these boxes should be struck down.
The court upheld e.tv’s complaint that Muthambi had failed to properly consult relevant parties before deciding not to encrypt these boxes.
The North Gauteng High Court heard arguments last year from the SABC and M-Net that including encryption on these boxes could add extra costs to the subsidised roll-out.
But e.tv said uncrypted signals would mean that “non-compliant” set-top boxes would receive digital broadcasts while further preventing it from offering high definition broadcasts.
Yet Muthambi told Fin24 on Wednesday that the SCA ruling, which advocated encrypted boxes, did not interdict the current roll-out of boxes which started around the SKA area last year.
"Remember the court order didn't interdict us from proceeding with project,” Muthambi told Fin24.
"That was not an interdict. There's only one clause that has to deal with the encryption,” she said.
In June, Naspers-owned pay-TV provider MultiChoice and the Ministry of Communications launched a Constitutional Court appeal against the SCA ruling.
And Muthambi told Fin24 that the “matter has been set down for February 17 for a hearing” in the Constitutional Court.
Digital TV hope
Despite setbacks facing South Africa’s delayed digital migration project, Muthambi said she’s still positive about the project.
"I must tell you now - we have connected people 99% at the SKA area. We have connected 99%,” Muthambi told Fin24.
"You should see the excitement of those people, because 22 years during their life they've never had access to television. Now, they can see it, switch it on, watch clear pictures. That's another milestone; it's a success story.
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