Slow drip for digital television

There’s welcome action around subscription TV with the recent launch of e.tv’s satellite 24-hour service on DStv and other licensed channels to come.

But as regards terrestrial digital television, which is supposed to open up space for even more new channels, including free rather than pay-TV options, don’t hold your breath.

There were hopes that 2008 would see the taps turned on for this kind of digital transmission to both TV sets and cellphones, but the slow trickle of information coming from the government suggests that “digital switch-on” by November 1 will be a damp squib, rather than an arousing rocket illuminating the broadcast sky.

The reason lies in ongoing government delays in releasing its Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy. This blueprint was supposed to be gazetted a year ago, and there have been shifting deadlines ever since.

The policy is needed to spell out parameters for moving from analogue broadcasting with its technical limits on the number of TV channels, to a digital multiplicity of services—including high-definition options and DVB-H to cellphones.

The government cites three reasons for the policy delays: the need to wait on international decisions on frequency usage; lengthy consultation around the draft of the policy; and finding ways to accommodate signal distributors Sentech and Orbicom.

Nevertheless, in Parliament this February, the Department of Communications was castigated by MPs who ordered that policy framework be made available within a week, along with a clear implementation strategy. The document is still not available, although this month is the new deadline.

This is not to say that nothing has been happening in the meantime. Sentech has been converting its broadcast towers; the South African Broadcasting Corporation has been getting technical gear. The government and manufacturers have been talking about specifications for the set-top box decoders that will be needed for consumers to display digital content on existing analogue TV sets.

But there’s a price to pay for the stalling. This is in the lack of clarity about subsidising the costs of the transition—for broadcasters and consumers, and in the delays in getting going with the manufacture, distribution and pricing of the set-top boxes.

In Parliament last week, Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri pointed out that the set-top boxes aren’t urgent because analogue signals will continue till November 2011. That’s correct, but her observation also raises questions on why digital transmission is still scheduled to start this November:

  • If, as now seems likely, the decoders are not widely available by that deadline, what’s the point in sending out broadcast signals that no one can receive?
  • And who will pay for a transmission that will be going out into the ether?
Underfunded Sentech is not likely to carry the burden of what is called “dual illumination” of sending out digital on top of analogue signals. Broadcasters e.tv and the SABC are also likely to resist. That leaves taxpayers, via the government.

What this suggests is that the November target date should be delayed at least a year to avoid anyone having to incur costs for what will initially be a pointless digital transmission.

While cellphones don’t depend on the set-top box to receive digital television, it will also take a couple of years for a new generation of enabled devices to percolate into the market to make this a viable proposition.

The government last week announced an 11-person body called the “Digital Dzonga (South)” that will publicise the whole transition, and monitor Sentech’s roll-out of the digital network.

The committee is supposed operate in regard to regulations to be developed by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. But in turn, these regulations can only be developed when we have a digital migration policy that sets out positions on timetables and costs.

The whole point of moving to digital television is that spectrum gets freed up for additional players and services. But that scenario looks more and more like a long-term prospect.

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