South Africa on track to meet digital TV deadline

Technology & Convergence

Despite the Government protracted look at other options, the Government claims that South Africa is on track to meet its November 2011 deadline to switch over to digital TV, said Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda, contradicting recent statements by industry.

The minister said the country was “very advanced in terms of migration” and, as far as he is aware, South Africa is “still on track”. Nyanda was making his comments based on information from the recently reconstituted Digital Dzonga.

Pearl Seopela, chief director of communications at the Department of Communications (DOC), confirms that November 2011 is the agreed switchover date to digital TV broadcasting, switching off analogue. The international cut-off date is mid-2015.

However, before South Africa can switch to digital, several issues must be resolved. The most important aspect is the choice of digital standard, which is currently in flux as the Southern African Development Community has yet to announce what standard the region will implement. This decision is expected to be made at next month's meeting of regional communications ministers, and the region will choose one standard to be implemented across the area. However, the decision will only be announced in December.

Without knowing what standard to use, manufacturers cannot produce set-top boxes that will be needed to convert digital signal for viewing on analogue televisions, and Sentech may have to change parts of its transmission network if the Japanese ISDB-T standard is implemented. This far all the pilot implementation work and transmitter roll-out work has been on DVB-T.

South Africa initially elected to use the European DVB-T standard, in 2006, but earlier this year confounded industry when the DOC said it was pondering the use of the Brazilian upgrade of the Japanese ISDB-T standard.

As a result, industry argues that the digital migration process has been delayed by years and, if South Africa switches, millions that have already been spent on designing equipment will have to be reinvested in the new standard.

Nyanda says the 2011 deadline “puts pressure on SA to sort out the matter of the standards as soon as possible”. He explains that when the country elected to use DVB-T, it “did so with reservations”.

The official decision is still to use DVB-T, says Nyanda. However, he says there were “recent technological developments” and South Africa cannot “stay captive to a standard if there is another standard that is better”.

Nyanda says this was the rationale behind looking at the Brazilian standard, as the department wants to use a standard that will benefit all of the country's citizens. However, he adds that the choice will not be made lightly, as “many people are concerned about this thing”. Industry has spent an estimated R700 million gearing up for the switchover to digital broadcasting, an investment that may be wasted if South Africa implements ISDB-T.

Sentech alone has spent R500 million and has been testing broadcast on the DVB-T standard. It expects to have 60% of the local population covered by the end of next March. The state-owned entity is working towards a complete turn-off of analogue in 2015.

Altech CEO Craig Venter has previously warned that a change in tack on the standard will set back the process of putting decoders into South African households by three to five years. He explains that industry has been gearing up for a transition to digital on the DVB-T standard since 2006.

“In fact, if a different standard is adopted, we will have to import skills and technology and turn our backs on what exists locally. This will stifle growth of the ICT sector,” says Venter.