The South African cabinet has reconfirmed a commitment to use more free and open source software in government departments to slash its technology running costs and increase the opportunities for local software developers, according to government spokesman Themba Maseko.

Unlike costly brand name packages, open source software is free to use and can be modified to suit the needs of its users. Wednesday's cabinet meeting revolved all new software developed for government would use open rather then proprietary standards, and that the software now in use would gradually be replaced by open source alternatives. That would eliminate annual licence fees and enhance local development skills, Maseko said.

The repercussions for software companies threaten to be enormous, as government is SA's largest spender on technology. But a policy of gradually switching to open source has been in place since early 2003, with little noticeable effect so far. Now a new date has been proposed, with a project office to be set up by April to ensure a smooth transition throughout SA.

Maseko said the cabinet also discussed the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting for radio and television, with the digital signal to go live on November 1 next year and analogue to be switched off three years later. SA has made some heavy commitments to Fifa to boost its information and telecommunications infrastructure ready for the 2010 World Cup. A service provider will be appointed to provide adequate infrastructure to carry voice and data signals to and from the stadiums, and Sentech will build a second teleport to provide satellite links.

After this week's budget speech, Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said the allocation of R318m over three years for Sentech to digitise broadcasting infrastructure was an improvement on the R200m it was led to expect, but far short of the R900m Sentech felt it needed.

The trade and industry department will liaise with television manufacturers and retailers, and run a campaign to educate the public about the digital implications. Viewers will need to buy a digital television or a kit to convert incoming digital signals. There are an estimated 7-million sets in SA. The communications department said this year a set-top box subsidy for consumers was likely, so everyone could access the new technology.

Maseko said the cabinet also agreed that sufficient broadcasting spectrum should be retained for new television channels dedicated to education, health, young people, business entrepreneurs and sport, and for and three regional services each offering three channels.

Business Day