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Upgrading the national broadcasting infrastructure from analogue to digital at a likely cost of R2bn is an opportunity to create more hi-tech jobs, boost IT skills and invigorate local television and radio production studios, government believes.

A network overhaul driven by the international phasing out of analogue technology is not a costly evil but a chance to spread wealth and skills around the country, says the communications department's deputy director-general of policy development, Harold Wesso.

Although the International Telecommunications Union cites June 2015 as the final date for axing analogue, SA faces a far more urgent deadline after pledging to broadcast the 2010 World Cup in digital technology.

This week, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation is staging a Digital Broadcasting Switchover conference in Sandton, where the technologies, the timetable, the sheer scale of the task and the enormous costs are under scrutiny.

Sentech's acting chief operating officer, Frans Lindeque, estimated recently that modernising and extending SA's telecoms and broadcasting networks was likely to cost R2bn. Sentech alone has asked for R1bn, but has been allocated only R205m over the next three years.

Now government is also debating subsidising the set-top boxes that consumers must buy to unscramble digital television signals.

Government had to subsidise set-top boxes if it wanted consumers to go digital in time for the World Cup, said Rob Sobey, CEO of Altech UEC. The boxes produced by his company cost about R500. Subsidies introduced in other countries had covered the cost of the boxes and left consumers to pay for their installation, Sobey said.

In countries where digital television was introduced without a subsidy, consumers took at least a decade to make the switch, as they objected to buying new equipment to continue receiving a service they already had. "To have a turnaround time of less than 10 years you need a subsidy to empower people to access the services," Sobey said.

Wesso expects broadcasters to pay a cumulative R1,5bn for digital licences, and some of that cash could be used to subsidise set-top boxes. He expects another R4bn to be pumped into the economy through job creation as set-top box manufacturers expand with small companies forming to install them and as production studios are set up to create more local programmes.

Even greater optimism was displayed by Paris Mashile, chairman of the Independent Communications Authority of SA.

"The switch to digital technology offers great opportunities to address the country's social ills," he said. Monopolies in the sector would be done away with, equipment manufacturers would boom, and more efficient broadcasting technology would allow e-government services to be delivered to underprivileged areas.

As digital broadcasting was more efficient than analogue, spectrum would be freed up to offer newer services such as television on the cellphone, wireless broadband access, more capacity for educational, health and e-government programmes, and for channels in all 11 official languages. "Greater spectrum efficiencies will deliver new services to benefit the country's economy and consumers," Mashile said.

"It is imperative to ensure that all households have access to affordable digital television services and are able to benefit from additional channels."

As different radio and television channels competed for an audience, the quality of content would improve, he said. A dynamic industry developing programmes to meet SA's different cultural and linguistic needs should evolve.

A note of caution was sounded by Deon Conradie, of the Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association. Conradie warned that there were unrealistic expectations of what the new system could offer, particularly given SA's policy vacuum, the lack of a clear licensing regime for digital broadcasting, and low consumer awareness.

At the moment, digital television in SA is dependent on satellite systems as the earth-based delivery systems are not yet ready. Current technologies are not as spectrum-efficient as people believe, and cannot carry six to 10 channels in the same frequency occupied by a single analogue channel. "That's not the case," said Conradie, who is also Sentech head of technology management. At best the current technology could carry two digital channels in the space occupied by one analogue channel, he said.

The SABC had to go "shopping galore" to prepare for digital migration, said its acting technical officer, Sharoda Rapeti. A posse of 22 digital cameras was in place for outside broadcasts, with another six still to come.

The shopping list for 2010 must also include more access to more international bandwidth and broadcast-friendly stadiums. But visionary leadership and new skills were just as crucial as physical equipment, Rapeti said.

"We need visionary leadership to transition us and implement these projects. We need content producers to focus on production competencies to explore the ability of these technologies.

"We shouldn't underestimate the development time we need to get really robust content development going."

Business Day