Not entirely omniscient
20 April 2014 09:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Julie Reid

The digital disaster that we know nothing about

  • Julie Reid
South Africa is currently preparing for a project bigger than the 2010 Fifa World Cup. It is so big that when it is all over it will have cost the country, and its citizens, billions (although to date, no one knows precisely what the eventual cost will be). It is a project that has enormous potential to improve the lives of ordinary people in various ways, including job creation, education, economic development, but most especially access to information. No, it’s not Uncle Trev’s national development plan for 2030; this project may just be the biggest and most complicated thing that we have ever done as a country. And yet, very few of us know what it is. 

According to a treaty South Africa agreed to with the International Telecommunications Union, we are committed to switching off our analogue television broadcasts by 2015, and start broadcasting via digital signals instead. It sounds simple enough. It also does not sound particularly exciting, does it? It is only when you start getting into the details, and take stock of what needs to be done to make this happen, that the magnitude of the entire project becomes apparent. 

On the upside, the advantages to undertaking this digital migration could be vast. Where we currently have access to four free-to-air television stations (SABC and e.tv) the switch over to the digital multiplexing system will mean that the SABC could have access to enough spectrum to broadcast between 10–12 channels instead of its current three. So, we could be looking at a lot more free-to-air channels to choose from. That’s a good thing, especially for the swathes of South Africans who cannot afford the subscription television services of DStv or TopTV. There are other advantages: because there will be more space on the “airwaves” it opens opportunities for new entrants, so if all goes well we may even see additional broadcasters starting up, and hopefully the encouragement of the community television sector. 

Unfortunately, it is no simple matter in technical terms, to broadcast television content via a digital platform. It is expensive, and because we have never broadcast free-to-air television this way before, a great deal of infrastructure needs to be put into place first before it can actually happen. Sentech needs to set up digital transmitters all over the country so that the digital television signals can be transmitted to homes. These new towers come at a huge cost, and although Sentech has made headway in completing this leg of the project, it is not nearly done. 

Because the transmission of digital television is a new process in this country, it cannot happen without a new set of regulations. Regulations are important because you cannot simply allow broadcasters to decide for themselves how much of the spectrum they want to chew up, and on which “frequencies” (now we will be talking about megahertz) or things would descend into chaos, with the channels of one broadcaster interfering with another. But regulations aren’t just plucked out of the air. They need to be drafted, then sent out for comment, then publicly consulted upon, then re-drafted, then re-consulted upon, then agreed to by council, and published in a gazette. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is currently busy with this process, but it has not been a smooth one, and it is not yet completed. It’s also safe to say that even when the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) Regulations are rubber-stamped they are unlikely to meet everyone’s approval, least of all community television broadcasters who are currently allocated an outrageously small slice of the spectrum pie. 

Still, getting a whole lot of new and free television channels does sound good. But even here, there’s a catch. The draft regulations for DTT stipulate that a good chunk of broadcast content needs to be local programming. But with so many new channels on the air, these locally produced television programmes still need to be made. And who is realistically going to produce them? Our public broadcaster, the SABC, is probably the main contender but in recent years has lurched from one financial crisis to the next. It is far more expensive to produce television content locally than it is to import cheap foreign content (as e.tv constantly reminds us with its abysmal selection of old sitcoms, B-grade American films and WWF). It is also highly unlikely that after spending the money required to make the digital transition any South African broadcaster is going to have enough left over in the coffers to start churning out high quality locally made television programmes. So, re-runs of 10-year-old South African made programmes look to become the order of the day. How scintillating. Last week the SABC told Parliament that due to its financial doldrums, it is not in the position to produce any new local content. 

But perhaps the biggest hiccup that this entire project is likely to face comes in the form of a little electronic device called the set top box. Very few people in South Africa own television sets that are capable of picking up digital signals. Almost all of us own analogue televisions. That is why, when you subscribe to say, DStv, you need to plug in a digital decoder: this device translates the digital signal into an analogue picture, so that your television can read it. Since our free-to-air television services have until now, been broadcast via analogue spectrum, anyone wishing to access free-to-air television channels did not need a decoder/set top box. When we’ve made the digital switchover, that will no longer be the case. EVERYONE needs to get a set top box. 

Again, this matter seems simple. Again, it is the opposite. First, no one seems reasonably sure of how many of these set top boxes we are going to need. A few months ago the Department of Communications estimated there were about 5.5 million television-owning households in South Africa. But after the release of the census results, that figure has sky-rocketed to 11.5 million. That is a lot of boxes. The next question is, where do we get them from? It’s been decided that these decoders should be locally assembled, in order to create jobs and inject life into the local electronics manufacturing industry. Throughout this year, the Department of Communications issued requests for information to tender to build the set top boxes, withdrew that request, issued another tender request, extended that deadline etcetera, etcetera. We still do not know who is going to build the set top box. All 11.5 million of them. And once this tender actually does get awarded to someone, it is not a simple case of flicking a switch on an assembly line and set top boxes start spontaneously popping out of factories. First, the box must be designed. Then tested (by the special lab cobbled together for this purpose at the SABS at a cost of R10 million). Then they must be distributed to 11.5 million households: and therein lies the most scary part. 

The problem is, South Africans need to be convinced to buy this thing. The Department of Communications has been frustratingly vague on how much the device will cost the consumer, but last week indicated a price of R960. That is pretty steep for a lot of people, so the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (Usaasa) is setting up a subsidy scheme. Persons who cannot afford the full price of the set top box will be able to apply for this subsidy, which will apparently cover 70% of the usual price. The process of applying for this subsidy however, sounds about as complicated as submitting a visa application for travel to the European Union, and also involves having to present one’s Identity Document. So, if for whatever reason you find yourself without an ID, maladministration and/or bad service from the Department of Home Affairs could prevent you from watching television services that are supposed to be free and accessible to everyone. The Usaasa subsidy scheme also requires applicants to submit bank statements. But many lower income earners in South Africa do not have bank accounts. 

Another question has to be the cost of assembling the set top box locally instead of importing the box at a far reduced price. If the set top box does cost R960 and we need 11.5 million of them, then these little devices will cost South Africans a grand total of R11,040,000,000 (that’s just over R11 billion). Whoever does win the tender to produce these things will have hit the payload, as this is set to be one of the biggest selling electronic devices in the history of the country. When we are talking this kind of money, in a country with our track record of corruption on these kinds of deals, why isn’t anyone scrutinising this particular process with a microscope? 

Now let’s be optimistic and imagine that all 11.5 million households either cough up the R960 bucks, or through successful subsidy applications, scrape together R288 (the amount not covered by the subsidy) and purchase a set top box. Great. Now the set top box needs to be installed, plugged into the television and hooked up to a new aerial. So, you need to hire, train, and send out an army of installation guys to 11.5 million households across the country. Is it possible? Yes. Has preparation for this begun yet? Nope. Additionally, the Department of Communications is planning to establish a call centre so that households having technical trouble with their television reception can call in for assistance. About 4,500 employees still need to be hired and trained to run this call centre, and the building that will house the centre has yet to be rented or built. 

Last week the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications held two days of hearings on the country’s state of readiness to make the switch from analogue to digital television broadcasts, and roll out digital terrestrial television. The MPs were scathing of the Department of Communications and lashed the deputy director-general for ICT policy development, Themba Phiri,  mercilessly for the department’s lack of planning, coordination and public awareness campaigning (neither the minister nor the director-general bothered to make an appearance). The Department of Communications is responsible for coordinating this project, and while there are a number of different entities involved, it is required to steer the ship. But the department is dropping the ball on a number of key matters, and most especially with regard to raising public awareness on DTT and public consultation. The Department of Communications’ entire public awareness campaign to date has consisted of nothing more than a few billboards and print advertisements released a few months ago, but that campaign was not sustained. The result is that relatively few people in South Africa really know what this is all about.

And apart from simply telling the population about this colossal project, has anyone in government bothered to ask citizens what they actually want out of the process? Let’s remember that the last time South Africans were asked to pay for a little electronic device as part of a process on which they were not given reasonable opportunity to give input, we witnessed the e-tolling debacle. 

The project of rolling out digital terrestrial television is enormous. When we were preparing to host the 2010 Fifa World Cup the media was (mostly) on the ball, giving us a running commentary on the local organising committee’s progress. But the media has been comparatively silent on this much larger and much more expensive project. The parliamentary smack down that the Department of Communications received from MP’s last week would have been front page news had it been the Fifa local organising committee instead. But I could find only one news source, BDLive, which published two measly articles, both extremely thin summaries comprising only a few paragraphs. 

The responsibility of initiating a national conversation on digital migration does not rest solely with the media, but it does have an important role, and it is a role which the media seems to ignore. Part of the problem is that DTT is a far less sexy story than the Nkandlagates and Mangaungs that currently keep us occupied. But what is also unfathomable, is how the media can be so quiet on a national issue which impacts it so directly, and stands to reshape the fundamental core of how the media works in the future. DM

  • Julie Reid
julie reid

Dr Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at the Unisa. She tweets about media issues regularly from @jbjreid and writes about media policy debates and the state of media freedom in South Africa. Julie is the Deputy President of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM), and an active member of the Right2Know campaign. She is involved in various media policy research projects, has published research in the field of media studies and edited a book on South African visual culture.


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