South Africa: Sentech Warns On Analogue Deadline

Technology & Convergence

Sentech, the state-owned company that carries radio and television signals for SA's terrestrial broadcasters, is likely to miss its first looming deadline for migrating to digital TV.

Switching from analogue to digital is a Fifa requirement for hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The new technology compresses the signal, which allows eight digital channels to be broadcast in the same frequency space used by one analogue channel. Sound and image quality will also improve.

Sentech spokeswoman Polly Modiko told Business Day that by the end of the financial year, "Sentech will only achieve population coverage of 40%," -- 12% less than it promised Parliament last year.

Its commitment to achieving 80% coverage by 2010 to be ready for analogue switch-off in 2011 is therefore also in jeopardy.

The embattled parastatal blames treasury and the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) for failing to come to the party. This year treasury allocated only R150m instead of R262.4m Sentech said it needed to meet its 52% coverage target by March 1.

Sentech told Parliament last month it needed R955m in capital costs and R917m for dual illumination over the three-year transition period. It was allocated only R650m for capex and nothing for dual illumination. The R1.2bn shortfall will balloon if the rand weakens, as it has done since initial calculations were made, because most digital migration equipment is imported.

But Modiko said Sentech remained optimistic additional funds needed would be forthcoming from treasury. Treasury declined to comment on whether it planned to make up the shortfall.

Sentech also blames Icasa for delaying digital migration by dragging its heels in publishing a digital frequency plan. Internal correspondence last year shows Sentech submitted its proposed plan to Icasa in June 2007, and wanted it adopted and published immediately to avoid further delays. But Icasa councillor Robert Nkuna, who heads the regulator's digital migration section, said Sentech was unfairly trying to jump the gun.

Industry sources say treasury may be forced to cough up for digital migration because signal distribution is a public service, even though it is expected to be user funded. But treasury will do so under duress because it lacks faith in Sentech's ability to spend taxpayers' money efficiently.

Business Day Johannesburg 26 January 2009