South Africa: Policy Delays 'Threaten Digital TV'

Regulation & Policy

Broadcasters and members of Parliament's communications committee united on 17 June 2008 in criticising the government's delay in releasing its digital migration policy as a serious hindrance to undertaking the technological switch by the November 1 deadline.

But Communications Director-General Lyndall Shope-Mafole and state-owned signal distributor Sentech insisted the switch-on would occur on the planned date. Shope-Mafole drew a distinction between the availability of digital transmission and the readiness of broadcasters to make use of it.

She said four policy documents had been introduced in the cabinet process dealing with general migration policy, the development of the TV set-top box industry, specifications for set-top boxes, which will be necessary to convert analogue signals to digital ones, and incentives and subsidies for set-top boxes. Another policy on local content, which would include the launch of three regional channels by SABC, was being formulated.

E.tv CE Marcel Golding warned that the delay in finalising policy would hold back the full commercial launch of digital terrestrial television, which would only be possible about 16 months after the policy had been issued.

"There have been repeated undertakings (since last year's budget speech) that the release of the policy paper is imminent, but we remain in exactly the same position as we were in April 2007. This lack of certainty over the past year has had a detrimental impact on planning and budgeting by incumbent broadcasters for the digital terrestrial television roll-out," he said .

E.tv Chief Operating Officer Bronwyn Keene-Young stressed the importance of a new frequency plan, which could only be finalised by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) after the policy had been issued and after taking into account public submissions.

" This process could at best take nine to 12 months from the date of the publication of the policy paper," she said. The failure of the department to release the specifications for set-top boxes would be the single biggest constraint to the introduction of digital terrestrial television, she said.

M-Net director of regulatory and legal affairs Karen Willemberg also complained about the absence of policy, which Democratic Alliance communications spokeswoman Dene Smuts said was holding up progress.

African National Congress communications spokesman Khotso Khumalo said "it seems that we will not be ready," and a three-year time frame might be necessary for the set-top boxes. But Shope-Mafole emphasised that set-top boxes would not be required on switch-on day.

SABC group executive for content enterprises Mvuzo Mbebe said the November target date would be achievable only for the pilot phase of rolling out the transmitter network to test the service, but policy delays would affect further progress. Policy certainty was needed urgently, he said.

Business Day, Johannesburg