South Africa: State Plan for Digital TV to Go to Cabinet

Technology & Convergence

The communications department says it will give the cabinet its long-awaited proposals on the move from analogue to digital terrestrial TV by the end of March. The strategy will include government recommendations on subsidising the set-top boxes required to receive digital signals and on whether the boxes would be made in SA or imported.

"In order to continue viewing TV using the current analogue TV sets, the public will be required to use set-top boxes, which convert the transmitted digital signal to analogue," Deputy Communications Minister Roy Padayachie said last week at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation conference in Sandton. "Otherwise it will be necessary to acquire digital-enabled TV sets.”

"Efforts should be made to explore developing capacities to manufacture set-top boxes locally to meet the local demand rather than importing them from abroad," Padayachie said.

Last year the cabinet approved the strategy to switch on the digital signal from this November. There would then be a "dual illumination" period until the analogue signal was switched off in November 2011. This would be four years ahead of international recommendations.

Sentech, the state-funded telecoms group responsible for rolling out the project, has said the cost of supplying SA's 7- million TV viewers now without set-top boxes could be R2,8bn-R4,2bn -- depending on the cost of the boxes. SA has 8,2-million TV watching households, 1,2-million of them on MultiChoice's DStv digital offering.

Three newly licensed pay-TV operators -- ODM, Telkom Media and MultiChoice, which was operating until now without a licence -- are awaiting a decision on the interoperability of the boxes. This enables multiple digital broadcasters to be received on any set-top box, regardless of who distributed it.

It is understood that some of the new operators were keen for the boxes to be opened up as this would let them use MultiChoice's existing network. MultiChoice, however, was not as keen as it believed this would make upgrading the boxes' software difficult. It was up to the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) regulator to decide whether the boxes could be interoperable.

Icasa chairman Paris Mashile indicated that interoperability would make sense. Introducing "a common box with different encryptions is the most logical thing to do", he said. "It is key, from an Icasa point of view, that these boxes are inter-operable."

(Business Day (Johannesburg), 31 January 2008)