/ 2 July 2008

Channel surf’s up

From November 1 2011, all South Africans will need decoders to watch television, but there will substantially more channels to use them on.

From November 1 2011, all South Africans will need decoders to watch television, but there will substantially more channels to use them on.

The SABC will start phasing in digital terrestrial television (DTT) from November before switching off the analogue signal in 2011, at which stage anyone who does not have a decoder will be unable to receive free-to-air television.

Peter Kwele, workstream leader: marketing and communications of DTT Projects, says, “All countries around the world are making the shift from analogue broadcasting to digital. This provides several long-term benefits, including better picture and sound quality; more efficient use of spectrum, which is scarce; the opportunities to introduce new services, such as interactive features and the capacity for more channels.”

Mvuzo Mbebe, group executive, SABC content enterprises, says these could include, among others, “a sports channel and possibly a dedicated 2010 channel”.

The United Kingdom used eight years of dual illumination compared to South Africa’s three, so this is an ambitious project, especially since an estimated four million TV households may not be able to afford decoders at their present price of between R400 and R500. Kwele hints that government may introduce a subsidy scheme to support this migration.

SABC isn’t the only broadcaster introducing additional channels. Last year, the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (Icasa) awarded four new 20-year subscription broadcaster licences to e.sat, Telkom Media, OnDigitalMedia (ODM) and Walking on Water (WOW TV). But Icasa has yet to issue the licences, blaming the conversion of licences from the old Telecommunications and Broadcast Acts to the new Electronic Communications Act for the delay. The broadcasters in limbo are hoping the licences will be signed by the end of June.

In the meantime, e.sat has already dropped out, arguing that the South African market can only sustain two pay-TV operators. Instead, they’re exploring alternative opportunities as a content aggregator and channel supplier, essentially joining Multichoice’s monopoly. For example, in June they launched the eNews Channel on DStv. Vasili Vass, head of publicity at sister company e.tv, adds, “There are plans to launch a number of new channels over the next couple of years. This year will see the launch of at least one other channel.”

Telkom Media is similarly revisiting its strategy, after Telkom, its parent company and 66% shareholder, announced that it would be significantly reducing its proposed R7,5-billion investment. Telkom has agreed to continue to carry the broadcasters’ operating expenses until a new investor can be found, which could prove difficult given e.sat’s widely publicised concerns about market saturation.

If the licences are signed by the end of June, ODM aims to launch in May next year, offering about 30 international and 10-15 local channels. ODM’s decision to opt for MPEG-4 compression technology, rather than the traditional MPEG-2, puts it in a position to offer high definition television in the future.

WOW TV is waiting for Icasa to sign on the dotted line before announcing when they’ll launch their initial single channel of predominantly Christian content. When they’re finally on air, they promise “uninterrupted and uncontaminated programming that addresses people’s emotional, psychological, economical, social and spiritual needs through entertainment — firmly based on Christian values.”

Despite the changes to e.sat and Telkom Media’s bids, there’s been no indication from Icasa on whether the next applicants in line will get a second chance. Snubbed licence applicant Black Earth Communications believes it deserves one, having already filed an application with the high court in this regard. Icasa has missed both the 15-day deadline to oppose and the court hearing.

Meanwhile, Free2View didn’t believe it needed a licence and launched anyway. When you add in community television channels like Cape Town TV and Soweto TV, as well as the possibility of video on demand and internet television, there have never been so many channels to surf in South Africa.