Digital delays biting into South African economy

Investment

Continued delays in the migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television are costing South Africa's economy dearly when it can least afford it. By Duncan McLeod.

The years of delays in South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television, caused mainly by political bungling, are starting to have a direct economic impact.

South Africa was originally meant to have completed migration from analogue to digital signals in November 2011. Eighteen months later and it’s still not clear when commercial digital broadcasts will even begin. A period of “dual illumination” of both analogue and digital signals will be needed while consumers go through the process of buying and installing the digital set-top boxes they’ll need when the old broadcasting system is switched off.

This may not seem like a big problem at first glance. After all, it’s just television, right? How important are Isidingo and 7de Laan to South Africa’s economic well-being and growth? Certainly, moving to a more efficient digital platform will allow for the licensing of new free-to-air and pay-television broadcasters and channels and could, if managed correctly by the industry regulator, play an important role in introducing meaningful competition to MultiChoice.

But it’s not just television that’s affected by the delays. The real significance of getting off inefficient analogue systems is that a big chunk of spectrum — the radio waves that carry television signals through the air — will be freed up and reassigned for wireless broadband. This process is happening around the world, not just in South Africa. The spectrum in question, in part of the UHF band, is known as the “digital dividend” and its propagation characteristics make it well suited to delivering broadband in areas that do not currently enjoy broadband service.

In other words, freeing up this spectrum could go a long way in helping government achieve one of its long-stated objectives: bridging the digital divide and getting more South Africans online.

It would also have a big impact on economic growth. Oft-quoted World Bank research from 2009 suggests that for every 10 percentage point increase in broadband connections, there is an increase in economic growth of 1,3 percentage points. The World Bank identifies mobile as the “single most powerful way to reach and deliver public and private services to hundreds of millions of people in remote and rural areas across the developing world”.

Yet the South African government, under a string of communications ministers, has shown a distinct lack of urgency in getting on with migration. The current minister, Dina Pule, effectively cost the country another year through an ill-advised decision that state-owned Sentech, which is building the digital television broadcasting network, would also manage a digital encryption system, a decision that led to a court showdown with e.tv that she lost. Pule is now hinting that, after all that wasted time, that she may ditch the control system. She told parliament two weeks ago that she’d decided to review the policy on set-top box control so that its inclusion would no longer be mandatory.

The delays in migration are starting to irk telecommunications companies that need access to new spectrum to cope with growing demand from consumers for mobile broadband. The networks of the bigger operators are already overloaded — an increase in dropped calls lately, anyone? — as they reallocate existing assignments of spectrum to build fourth-generation systems. And an inevitable bun fight over which companies get access to which spectrum and why still lies ahead. Litigation may be inevitable, leading to more delays.

Mark Taylor, CEO of Nashua Mobile, one of the country’s biggest independent mobile service providers, told me this week that the industry is in a “horrible cycle” in which “growth is limited” despite “enormous pent-up demand” from consumers for broadband. The industry is stagnating because of the delays in digital migration.

This carries a big opportunity cost, as the World Bank and studies by the GSM Association, a mobile industry lobby group, show. Though the voice business has matured in South Africa — in fact, the latest numbers from the mobile operators suggest voice revenues have gone into reverse — growth in demand for data will not disappear for years to come.

By not getting a move on with digital migration, South Africa is shooting itself in the foot. As first-quarter GDP numbers this week showed, we can’t afford to keep making these basic mistakes.

Source: Duncan McLeod, editor of TechCentral. Follow him on Twitter. 2 June 2013.

This column is also published in the Sunday Times