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South Africa: Broadcast Digital Upgrade Will Boost Jobs And Skills

Business Day (Johannesburg) wrote on February 1st that upgrading the national broadcasting infrastructure from analogue to digital at a likely cost of R2bn is an opportunity to create more hi-tech jobs, boost IT skills and invigorate local television and radio production studios, the government believes.

A network overhaul driven by the international phasing out of analogue technology is not a costly evil but a chance to spread wealth and skills around the country, says the communications department's deputy director-general of policy development, Harold Wesso.

Although the International Telecommunications Union cites June 2015 as the final date for axing analogue, SA faces a far more urgent deadline after pledging to broadcast the 2010 World Cup in digital technology. Sentech's acting chief operating officer, Frans Lindeque, estimated recently that modernising and extending SA's telecoms and broadcasting networks was likely to cost R2bn. Sentech alone has asked for R1bn, but has been allocated only R205m over the next three years.

Now government is also debating subsidising the set-top boxes that consumers must buy to unscramble digital television signals. Government had to subsidise set-top boxes if it wanted consumers to go digital in time for the World Cup, said Rob Sobey, CEO of Altech UEC. The boxes produced by his company cost about R500. Subsidies introduced in other countries had covered the cost of the boxes and left consumers to pay for their installation, Sobey said.

Wesso expects broadcasters to pay a cumulative R1,5bn for digital licences, and some of that cash could be used to subsidise set-top boxes. He expects another R4bn to be pumped into the economy through job creation as set-top box manufacturers expand with small companies forming to install them and as production studios are set up to create more local programmes.

As digital broadcasting was more efficient than analogue, spectrum would be freed up to offer newer services such as television on the cellphone, wireless broadband access, more capacity for educational, health and e-government programmes, and for channels in all 11 official languages. "Greater spectrum efficiencies will deliver new services to benefit the country's economy and consumers," Mashile said.

At the moment, digital television in SA is dependent on satellite systems as the earth-based delivery systems are not yet ready. Current technologies are not as spectrum-efficient as people believe, and cannot carry six to 10 channels in the same frequency occupied by a single analogue channel. "That's not the case," said Conradie, who is also Sentech head of technology management. At best the current technology could carry two digital channels in the space occupied by one analogue channel, he said.

The SABC had to go "shopping galore" to prepare for digital migration, said its acting technical officer, Sharoda Rapeti. A posse of 22 digital cameras was in place for outside broadcasts, with another six still to come. The shopping list for 2010 must also include more access to more international bandwidth and broadcast-friendly stadiums. But visionary leadership and new skills were just as crucial as physical equipment, Rapeti said.

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