Changes to game plan jeopardise digital switch-on date again

In February this year, Communications Minister Dina Pule announced that the digital television switch-on was being moved from April to September.

When a country switches from analogue television to digital, there are two important dates. The first is when digital television signals are launched and the second is when the analogue television signal is turned off for good. Dual illumination is the period between the two when both signals run simultaneously. In this period, all analogue television households must be converted to digital set-top boxes.

What Pule's announcement meant was that the government was not going to turn on the digital television signals before the date when the migration was meant to have been completed. To say that South Africa is behind schedule is an understatement.

But now the Independent Com­muni­cations Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has changed the draft regulations for digital terrestrial television and is trying to introduce new players during the dual illumination period. This will upset broadcasters such as M-Net, SABC and e.tv, which have to carry the costs of both analogue and digital transmissions during that period while doing marketing to convince their viewers to migrate to digital. The new entrants will have to pay only for a digital transmission and their content, and with no customers to migrate, they will not have to do any marketing.

Rumblings
This week, the broadcasters refused to comment on the regulations before they had responded to the regulator. But, from the rumblings behind the scenes, the regulator may be forced to hold public hearings on the draft regulations, which could be challenged legally.

Industry insiders have long claimed that South Africa would miss the 2015 deadline to turn off the analogue signal. As a signatory to the International Telecommunication Union, it agreed to meet the global analogue switch-off date of June 1 2015. After that, analogue tele­vision signals will not be protected against interference.

According to Icasa's new draft regulations, the regulator seems to acknowledge this. "It is therefore important that Icasa amend its draft digital terrestrial television regulations to meet any future contingencies, including the possibility that analogue switch-off may not take place in 2015 as envisaged in the ministerial policy."

An industry insider said: "There is going to be another round of fighting over these regulations. A lot of people have threatened legal action – are they bluffing or are they serious? Who knows?"

Another said the new regulations could lead to additional delays in the process and it appeared that the regulator did not want to hold public hearings on the new draft regulations, although it would probably be forced into it.

Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.
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