South Africa: Bid to Speed Up Digital Switchover

Technology & Convergence

The Department of Communications, recently criticised for stalling the process that will see TV broadcasting in South Africa transfer from an analogue signal to digital, will hold a meeting next month to finalise the software technology included in the new TV decoders used to receive the digital signal.

Emerging black-owned manufacturing companies have blamed the government for a delay in publishing the manufacturing tender for decoders and said some companies were on the verge of closing as their business plan relied on being part of the manufacturing chain of the decoders, also called set-top boxes.

The technology will address controversial issues such as conditional access, a system that will enable broadcasters to switch off viewers for reasons such as nonpayment of their terrestrial pay TV services currently provided by M-Net. A second issue is the so-called return path, a system that will enable the decoders to also be used to access the internet, especially government websites such as home affairs, enabling consumers to apply online for items such as identity documents.

The government is not in favour of conditional access and wants any technology standard adopted to have a return path, which is seen as a tool to increase telecommunications services to consumers' homes.

Communications director- general Mamodupi Mohlala's team has been investigating software technology used by countries such as Brazil. The government wants to avoid signing onerous and long-term royalty payment agreements. "We don't want to adopt a model that will lock us into royalty payments for a lifetime. We want to be able to own (the software). It should also be tailor-made for SA ," Mohlala said. She acknowledged that South Africa's skills and capacity in manufacturing were "few and far between".

In the first phase, the decoders would be assembled in South Africa, rather than being built from scratch. However, the government is tightening its requirements for foreign companies positioning themselves to be part of the manufacturing process to make a commitment to transfer skills to South Africans.

"This is a mammoth task. We have to be thorough. We don't want to wake up 10 years later and be blamed for (a) catastrophic mistake that has caused South Africans (to lose) lots of money. We also don't want the (manufacturing) industry to fall apart in 10 years time." Mohlala would not commit to any deadline but said the set-top boxes would see "the light of day" by the end of the 2010-11 financial year.