South Africa

OP-ED: SCRAMBLING FOR SPECTRUM

South Africa’s great analogue to digital migration seems elusive

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Digital technology was meant to deliver more choice, lower costs and even free TV without a new TV set. Yet we still don’t have it. In that context, the announcement by the minister of communications and digital technologies last week that the switchover from analogue to digital would be done in the next six months should be good news. An industry insider spoke to us about some of the issues and concerns.

Sadly, the announcement has raised more questions than answers, given the failure to complete this process over more than 10 years. The previous week the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) announced that the much-vaunted spectrum auction will be restarted with a new closing date of May 2022 for the receipt of applications in response to the composite invitation to apply for network licences and radio frequency spectrum licences for the purpose of operating a wireless open access network (woan).

So, what has happened to the much-vaunted, government-driven programme to bring digital TV to the millions of South Africans who still rely on the stodgy diet dished up by a beleaguered public broadcaster, the SABC, and the one free-to-air commercial broadcaster, e.tv? The answer is really fuzzy, like when you try to tune your TV to an analogue signal.

Starting with a review of the scores of policy documents and official statements from government officials, one is spoilt for choice of analogies to describe the mess we are in, but left no wiser about the reasons for the imbroglio. Is this a case of bureaucratic bungling, commercial, regulatory or state capture, common or garden corruption or a dog’s breakfast – or all or none of the above? Divining the truth or arriving at a semblance of understanding of the reasons for the failure of the digital switchover in South Africa requires a deep dive into a morass of stalled policy processes and interminable regulatory activities.

Driving South Africa into a digital donga

If we start with the current state of the policy environment, the first piece of the puzzle we encounter is the White Paper on Audio and Audiovisual Content (the AV Policy). This policy is the result of more than five years of officials attempting to fashion a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The fact is that this policy document is the outcome of almost a decade of colloquiums, seminars, round tables and other multistakeholder consultations forums.

Instead of a laser-focused, clear and coherent policy document we are faced with a hotchpotch of wish lists and backward-looking attempts to address a plethora of issues that each require their own policy: spectrum, regulatory, public broadcasting, local content development, creative and cultural industries, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digital skills and the digital economy.

The explanations for this disconnect and attempt at reverse engineering are manifold, but the key reason was that this policy was originally a chapter of the Integrated Information and Communications Policy (Integrated ICT Policy) but was unceremoniously pulled out by the disgraced Faith Muthambi, the communications minister at the time.

Instead of allowing a coherent policy review process that was well under way to run its course, then president Jacob Zuma pre-empted its outcome and decreed that two new departments be created: a Department of Communications and a Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services. This resulted in complete chaos and confusion for the “converging” sector, and facilitated what was clearly an attempt to capture and loot (more about that later).

Why undertake a policy review, you might ask? Well, precisely to review the institutional architecture, the legislative landscape, the administrative processes and the structure of the industry so as to decide whether there is a need to introduce new policies, new laws and regulations, and new institutional structures to achieve certain desired outcomes, such as industrial development and transformation.

Instead of the much-vaunted “integrated” policy review, what occurred was a hasty attempt to establish the two new departments, a papering over of the fault lines of the Integrated ICT Policy and the capture of the digital switchover. The complexities of the illegal and unethical activities under the watch of Muthambi are the subject of a long-awaited inquiry by Parliament’s Ethics Committee and the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.

Whatever the outcomes of the two inquiries and several Special Investigating Unit (SIU) investigations, the cold, hard truth of the current state of affairs is that South Africa missed the international deadline of June 2015 to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting and to free up valuable radio frequency spectrum.

The radio frequency spectrum, a natural resource more commonly referred to as the “airwaves”, is what broadcasters use to convey their radio and TV signals to audiences. To do this they employ various techniques such as frequency and amplitude modulation (FM, AM) in radio to carry the radio signals from their broadcast studios to the radio sets of audiences. Different portions of the radio frequency spectrum are more suitable to radio or TV broadcasts, in particular the very high frequency (VHF) and ultrahigh frequency (UHF) bands.

The VHF band, which ranges from 30MHz to 299MHz, makes it possible to cover a large geographical area from a single transmitter such as the one at the top of the iconic Sentech Tower in Brixton that dominates the Johannesburg skyline. The UHF band ranges from 300MHz to 3GHz and the characteristics of these airwaves make them suitable for penetrating building walls to reach TV receivers indoors.

Recent advances in digital compression techniques and broadcasting signal distribution have made it possible to use the radio frequency spectrum in a more efficient manner. The result is that it is now possible for broadcasters to distribute several TV channels across the airwaves using the same frequency currently occupied by a single TV channel. In theory this should reduce the costs of signal distribution for the broadcaster and free up the remaining frequencies for use by telecommunications companies. These companies can now use these frequencies to provide mobile broadband services at a lower cost than what they currently do using fixed lines in the ground, such as copper or fibreoptic.

Scrambling for spectrum

Many people sit up and notice when the biggest telecommunications companies and the only free-to-air commercial TV channel in the country are embroiled in yet another court battle with regulatory authorities. For most South Africans there is still no clarity on the reasons for the delays and the prospects for a speedy resolution to a process that promised to bring more choice in TV channels and lower costs to communicate.

Icasa was taken to court by Telkom, MTN and e.tv for different reasons, but all linked to the proposed auction of choice chunks of the radio frequency spectrum. Watered-down pronouncements coming from the office of the former minister of communications and digital technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, about “mediating” between the warring parties have seemingly amounted to nothing, and now there is a second round of legal challenges mounting, with e.tv taking the new minister to court and Icasa facing a new round of legal challenges.

Worse still, the overhyped migration to digital broadcasting and the launch of digital terrestrial television, a flagship programme of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, is floundering. Billions have been spent on this programme to date, a world-class signal distribution network was illuminated as early as 2012, and yet fewer than 600,000 households out of a potential 12 million have been connected and activated to receive the new digital TV signals.

As early as December 2012, Icasa published the digital terrestrial television regulations to enable the introduction of diversity and the promotion of competition in the television market. To date, not a single new broadcast licence has been issued and not a single new broadcasting competitor has been introduced into the market.

And while the bureaucrats bungle, the rest of the country, particularly data-starved South Africans, continue to pay excessive prices for their basic communications needs. The film and television, or audiovisual production, sector has been sitting on its hands waiting for the tens of new channels that were promised would be launched so that new local content can be produced and the creative industries sector could blossom. The promises of a revived electronics manufacturing sector and a growing IT industry have been drowned out by howls of condemnation, with the government now blaming industry for the delays.

And the current state of affairs? Grandiose pronouncements about a creative industries master plan have still not borne any fruit. Likewise, the possibilities of being catapulted into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)  following the publication of the report of the 4IR Commission, have not resulted in any tangible programmes. The spectrum for the launch of 5G mobile technology and the myriad opportunities that will open up for both industry and consumers with high-speed mobile broadband networks and countless applications, remain in limbo and a pipe dream.

The recent announcement by the communications minister appears to be another rushed plan (it is referred to as a managed integrated model) that is neither integrated nor apparently well managed.

First, we have a white paper process that recommends that Icasa conduct an enquiry to determine the most appropriate licensing framework for digital terrestrial television after analogue switch-off – surely we should first have a clear post-switch-off plan in place before proceeding to roll-out? Where is this plan?

Second, Icasa’s estimate of capacity of channels on each MUX is questionable – 55% of MUX-2 for digital terrestrial television channels is intended to accommodate 21SD channels or 6HD channels – this equates to 1.5MB/s for an SD channel. This is very, very low quality.

Third, how are they going to deal with e.tv? We understand that 63% of all e.tv viewers still view through analogue service – it is still not clear how they will view (and afford) e.tv and SABC after analogue switch-off.

Fourth, many South African citizens fall outside of MUX-2 coverage but instead fall inside coverage of MUX-1. For broadcasters like e.tv to replicate all channel coverage in the Openview bouquet, it will require at least two full MUXs. Clearly, further digital terrestrial television Mux licensing will be required.

Fifth, the question of Sentech’s role: the white paper argues for co-assignment of spectrum to both broadcasters and Sentech before any further digital terrestrial television Mux licensing happens – will there be enough time for such Sentech-related co-assignment regulations to pass?

Last, but not least, as we all know, we have a chipset shortage around the world, contributing to set-top box shortage, so where will the boxes come from in order to meet the January 2022 switch-off?

Most worrying for all South Africans should be the fact that the SABC, as the national public service broadcaster, does not appear to be at the centre of these plans. In fact, many of the recommendations it has made in both policy and regulatory processes have been completely ignored, or don’t appear to be supported by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies and the minister as shareholder representative for the government.

A strategy for the future: competition to the rescue?

As the country lurches from one political crisis to the next, as the faltering economy gasps for breath, there are a few signs of a potential reversal of years of stagnation and the emergence of new industries and markets. The global internet giants have seen the potential for growth in South Africa and made substantial inroads into a largely regulated market which imposes unwieldy burdens on licensed South African companies.

Despite this unregulated competition, local subscription broadcaster MultiChoice has managed to thrive in tough economic conditions and to grow its subscriber base as well as introduce competitive streaming services and products, to the extent of bundling services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, together with its premium content offering.

The SABC has managed to reverse its fortunes and has shown positive audience and advertising growth as it deals with years of maladministration and stemming burgeoning costs. Free-to-air broadcaster e.tv launched a satellite direct-to-home offering, and has reported growing numbers of new households on its platform.

A number of new streaming services linked to the major telcos have made a tentative launch into a cut-throat content services market. The SABC itself has announced plans to launch its own streaming service and in the meantime has also entered into a partnership with eMedia holdings (the owners of e.tv and OpenView HD) to carry SABC channels on the OpenView HD platform.

South African entrepreneurs have embraced the digital revolution, launching products and services that compete with the best in the world. So, despite, and in spite of, the dampened economic conditions and a mangled policy and regulatory environment, the green shoots of growth are bursting through.

The lesson seems to be that what South Africa needs now is a more focused leadership, enlightened self-regulation and competition between enterprises prepared to take risks. We have the policy and regulatory frameworks in place – what we need now is a steady flow of creative and innovative people who drive the digital economy forward and create job opportunities for the millions of young people entering the labour market daily.

This is an opportunity for the new minister to take heed of the many submissions by a range of stakeholders into the audiovisual policy process. As shareholder representative of the SABC, it is important for her to take note of the submissions the SABC has made regarding a new funding model, must-carry programming and sports regulations and sorting out the TV licence saga.

It is vital that the SABC continues to stabilise as it completes its turnaround strategy and especially to commission new local content at the volumes that will help to grow the local production industry that has been decimated over the past decade. DM

William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa.

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  • Good luck with that. As soon as the word “need” is used it devolves into an “opportunity” to stifle that need by government bungling. Let me put it this way. If you “need” government to do anything, you’re in deep trouble and should reconsider your “needs”.

  • To call it an unmitigated disaster would be kind. The really sad part is that the initial plans and specs were quite forward thinking with efficient next-generation standards. A decade plus later, technology has moved on. Sure, you can do SD (standard definition) on ~1.5Mbps, but not HD/FHD or UHD. SD TVs are practically extinct. Small businesses to manufacture, distribute and support STBs have gone bust. Why would anyone, again, want to bet capital on a business in this sphere? Consumers are moving to streaming. With analogue spectrum freed up, it might be simpler, and more efficient, to stream over mobile and zero-rate free-to-air channels like SABC.