Digital migration readiness under scrutiny in Parliament

The country’s readiness for digital migration was put under intense scrutiny on Tuesday, as MPs questioned the delays in implementation, the costs involved and the availability of installers nationwide to ensure proper rollout, once South Africa starts the switch from analogue.

With MPs questioning the capabilities of the South African Post Office (Sapo) to deal with the rollout, the meaning of the control system software and the possible dates for total switch off, the department of communication, Sapo, Sentech and the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa) all presented their state of readiness to a joint meeting of the Communications and Telecommunications and Postal Services committees today.

The briefing got off to a rocky start, with opposition party MPs questioning the absence of communications minister Faith Muthambi, who was set to appear before the committee, and could not come due to previous commitments.

The committee heard that she had asked for the briefing to be postponed, and the chairpersons of the two committees opted to continue with the meeting in her absence.

Set-top boxes
Communications acting director general Donald Liphoko said the Broadcasting Digital Migration Amendment Policy which was approved by cabinet last week, with the inclusion of the control system in the set-top boxes (STBs), would be gazetted next week.

He said the biggest delay in the project, which has been in the pipelines since 2008, has been deciding whether the STBs would have a control system or not.

“The delay has been which system should be adopted. Whether it should be a control system, or it’s about an encrypted system. That has been the crux of the matters and it was behind the delay,” said Liphoko.

“We have looked at this exhaustively and there have been legal challenges that also led to the directions which we have taken in determining the final product. What is required here is for government not to be a player in space of encryptions, so we are not trying to build an alternate system that is going to require ongoing costs.”

While last week communications minister said over R3-billion had been set aside for the rollout of the STBs, with more than five million poor households to get the new “digital” television method free, the deputy director general of policy and oversight Ndivhuho Munzhelele said around R2.7-billion had been set aside, with R19-million to go towards creating public awareness.

He insisted that the control system did not mean conditional access. He said the country had not done much to meet the deadlines so far.

“The consequence of not meeting the deadlines is that the signals will not be protected against interference.”

Sentech said the rollout of the STBs would priorities the Square Kilometre Array areas, which had been declared a radio frequency quiet zones.

They would then move to cross border sites, in order to protect the country from likely interference coming from neighbouring countries.  

Usaasa said while five million households would be subsidised, over 6.2-million households qualified as poor as of 2013, and after the initial rollout, more funding would be needed to subsidise the rest of the poor households.

‘Fire Muthambi’
Economic Freedom Fighters MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi suggested that a lot of money could be saved by firing the communications minister.

“Maybe we can increase the subsidy to the poor for the provision of the STBs by just shifting the responsibilities of the entire project from communications to telecommunications. And fire Muthambi. What we spend on her, her salary, security could subsidise the poor. Because I don’t know what she does. She is not here, she is recently missing meetings.”

In June, the country will start the “switch on” process of migrating free-to-air television broadcasting services from analogue format to digital broadcasting, while the date to switch off has not yet been finalised, though the different organisations said they were looking at 18 months from the switch on date.

MPs questioned by embattled Sapo’s ability to deliver the STBs, when it was continuously plagued by strikes.

The different organisations said the country did not have the luxury of time when it came to the switch off date, and were looking at rolling it out as fast as possible.

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