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Sentech is beginning the process of upgrading SA's broadcasting infrastructure to become digitally ready to meet the broadcasting requirements of the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

According to Riaan Emerich, Sentech's portfolio manager for product management, the R1 billion project is expected to provide coverage to 92% of the viewing population upon completion. The project also aims to have covered 78% of the country's population with digital terrestrial television (DTT) by 2009, he says.

Emerich notes that in principle, government has agreed to provide the required funding for the project. However, the full extent of the funding – whether it will be 100% funding or a portion thereof – is still awaiting ratification. Funding will be effective from 1 April.

The initial plan was to complete the project in five years, he says. However, there is pressure to move forward deadlines for roll-out in places where the soccer matches will be played. Sentech is in discussion with the Department of Communications regarding the issue, he says.

Sentech will oversee the roll-out of DTT infrastructure internally, he says. However, the preparatory phase, which includes doing antenna upgrades to ensure they can accommodate additional power to be used for digital transmission, will be outsourced.

A tender for the preparation work was issued internationally and the selection process is now taking place, he says.

Once the infrastructure is prepared, roll-out of infrastructure can commence, Emerich says. The second tender, for the provision of transmitters, will go out some time in 2006, he says.

Sentech is conducting test transmissions from its Brixton tower in Johannesburg to ensure output power used with the digital infrastructure allows for the same coverage, or more than what the analogue system provided, Emerich says. It also aims to establish technical parameters and ensure Sentech is fully compliant with international standards.

According to Frans Lindeque, Sentech's executive for digital services, Sentech will use all its 220 high sites to facilitate DTT broadcasts. New sites will be also established in areas that previously did not have analogue coverage.

Sentech anticipates the network upgrades to take two years. Once that process is completed, a dual illumination process, whereby DTT and analogue systems run side-by-side, will begin. The dual illumination will continue for a number of years, Lindeque says.

"The decision to switch off analogue services will be made by government for public broadcast services and by commercial entities, where commercial broadcast services are affected," Lindeque says.

The digital migration working group, which is responsible for the development of SA's strategy and timelines for the digital TV switchover, says it will await the International Telecommunications Union meeting scheduled for mid-2006 before establishing a timeline for the country's switchover.

The group expects to finalise and submit its recommendations to communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri by the end of the financial year in March, without including a recommended date for the switchover.

Sentech says DTT viewers will require a decoder or set-top box, which are similar to those used for satellite TV reception. It notes that the cost, which is approximately R984 for a fairly advanced decoder, may be too expensive for most of the population. As a result, an effort will be made to bring the costs down.