National

New storm breaks over Ngubane

Lloyd Gedye, Sam Sole

Questions have been raised about SABC chairperson Ben Ngubane's role in lobbying for the adoption of Japanese digital broadcasting technology.

Questions have been raised about SABC chairperson Ben Ngubane’s role in lobbying for the adoption of Japanese digital broadcasting technology.

The department of communications caused an uproar in the broadcasting industry last month when it announced its intention to consider this Japanese technology, called ISDB-T. This was seen as an about-turn because the department had taken a decision in 2006 to use European technology (called DVB-T).

Now it has emerged that Ngubane met with Satoru Yanagishima, the global ICT business promotions director from the Japanese ministry of internal affairs and communications, on February 25 this year at Foxwood House, a hotel and conference centre in Houghton, Johannesburg.

At this meeting Yanagishima and his team gave Ngubane a presentation on the benefits of their ISDB-T technology.

The Mail & Guardian has a copy of the presentation that was left behind after the meeting. Officials from the Japanese embassy were also present, the M&G understands.

Ngubane was South Africa’s ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2008.

Two weeks after this meeting, Ngubane set up a meeting between SABC chief executive Solly Mokoetle and the Japanese, sources have told the M&G.

Ngubane has denied this. He told the M&G he suggested to the Japanese that they make a presentation to the SABC board but that they should arrange this with SABC acting chief operating officer Charlotte Mampane.

But SABC board members to whom the M&G spoke on condition of anonymity this week said they had no knowledge of any proposed meetings with the Japanese to discuss ISDB‑T and that the Japanese had never made a presentation to the board.

They had merely seen Ngubane with a Japanese delegation when they arrived for a scheduled SABC board meeting at Foxwood House.

Board members had to wait for Ngubane to conclude his meeting with the Japanese before the SABC meeting could start. They said the SABC chairperson had not told the board who the Japanese were or what their discussion had been about.

Ngubane said: “The director general of communications from Japan came to South Africa and I got frantic calls [from him, saying] he wanted to meet the SABC to discuss the technology. They thought that the SADC countries were going to use it [ISDB‑T], so we should have a common approach.”

It was the communications department’s prerogative to decide on a technology standard, Ngubane said, and his last contact with the Japanese had been at the meeting in Houghton.

“People mustn’t come and talk all sorts of lies,” said Ngubane. “I have served in government and I have never been corrupt.”

Mokoetle was at a conference in China this week. When the M&G contacted him, he said: “I will not deal with anything right now. I am overseas,” and hung up.

Meanwhile, the Independent Democrats have tabled questions in Parliament about a communications department trip to Brazil that was allegedly paid for by the Japanese. Brazil is one of the few countries to have adopted the ISDB‑T technology.

The department’s about-turn last month left many in the industry claiming that a late move to the Japanese technology would cost South Africans broadcasters millions because they had already begun to invest in expensive trials and set-top boxes.

Industry players also argued that the move could set back South Africa’s digital migration process by three to five years.

“I’m not sure if the department has given a valid reason why it wants to relook at the standards,” said one industry insider. “It will cost the digital migration process quite a lot in terms of time and money.”

“There must be a major reason to do a review,” said the insider.

The insider said that because the European DVB-T technology was so widely used around the world, the economies of scale meant that the prices were much cheaper.

The insider said the Japanese set-top boxes were retailing for as much as $200 (R1 586) in Brazil, which would be unaffordable for South African consumers.

The migration process in South Africa is already running behind schedule and the use of the Japanese technology could lead to cross-border spectrum interference with SADC neighbours who have been considering the European technology.

The communications department’s announcement last month prompted the Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association to warn the department that the Japanese ISDB‑T does not offer any technological benefits relative to the European DVB‑T.

“It’s really looking like there will be a showdown over this,” the association’s representative, Gerhard Petrick, was reported as saying at the time.

“No one has asked for a change in the standard other than the department of communications, which has been lobbied hard by Japanese and Brazilian lobbyists,” he said.

The department of communications had not responded to the M&G‘s questions at the time of going to print.


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