Why April 1st could mean your TV shows nothing but static
The mere mention of ‘digital migration’ tends to put people to sleep. But now is the time to pay attention — because on 1 April you might find that your television set effectively no longer works. And even if it doesn’t directly affect you, it will affect millions of South Africans who can’t afford DStv.
Can you explain what the whole “digital migration” thing actually means?
No. But Karen Thorne, the founder and station manager of Cape Town TV, kindly helped out.
In the past, Thorne told Daily Maverick, television broadcasts were sent over the airwaves — we cannot get bogged down in more technical explanations at this early point — using analogue technology.
Then digital technology came along, and people realised that broadcasting in digital rather than in analogue made a lot more sense. It provides a much better picture and sound quality, and it uses less of our bandwidth spectrum — which is a finite resource, much like our appetite for discussions of digital migration.
All over the world, countries have accordingly migrated from analogue to digital. South Africa was originally supposed to do so in 2015, but we didn’t, for all the standard reasons that apply to that particular time period: State Capture, blah, blah, blah.
When South Africa’s digital migration is complete, the government assures us that we will all feel the benefits. Primary of which will be that there will be more bandwidth spectrum to go round, which should in theory result in lower costs of broadband and mobile data.
Yay for digital migration! So what’s the problem?
The problem is that on 31 March, ie, next week, the government’s spectrum tsar Sentech is going to switch off the analogue signal. From 1 April, which is distinctly unfortunate timing, you will only be able to watch TV if your set can pick up a digital signal.
You will be fine if any of the following applies to you:
A: You are a DStv subscriber;
B: You have a “set-top box”, which is a decoder that the government and some private companies have been distributing in a haphazard fashion over the past few years; or
C: You have a TV set that has a built-in tuner and can pick up a digital signal.
You may think that if you have a reasonably modern flat-screen TV, you must surely be in the clear for point C. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case: Thorne says that because most of the rest of the world banned the import of TV sets without a built-in tuner in recent years, but South Africa did not, our beloved Mzansi became something of a “dumping ground for old-tech TVs”.
I can’t afford DStv, I don’t have a set-top box and my TV is from the late 1990s. What will I be able to watch from 1 April?
Paint drying; grass growing; but when it comes to TV — nix, nada, nothing.
But surely this must apply to loads of South Africans, particularly from poorer households?
This is the precise concern of Thorne and other industry figures, who have formed a lobby group called #SaveFreeTV to try to raise public awareness of the situation.
#SaveFreeTV estimates that 14 million South Africans will be left without TV. Thorne explained that these figures are based on research from the Broadcasting Research Council which found that 5.6 million households only receive free TV. Stats SA estimates that the average South African household contains 2.5 people: 2.5 x 5.6 million = 14 million people about to be left without a signal.
A total of 5.6 million households currently rely on free-to-air TV channels, which means e.tv, SABC and a variety of community channels like Cape Town TV.
As mentioned, the government has been giving away set-top boxes free to indigent households — but Thorne says only 616,871 boxes have been installed, which doesn’t make much of a dent in that 5.6 million household figure.
Does the government know about this situation?
Yes. Communications Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has repeatedly accused the #SaveFreeTV activists of peddling falsehoods.
Part of the argument comes down to conflicting statistics. The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) says that only 2.5 million households currently watch only free TV, which is a number from Stats SA. (Thorne is confident that the Broadcasting Research Council’s figures are more accurate.)
“You can argue about figures, but millions are going to turn on their TV and not have a signal,” says Thorne.
This is backed up by the fact that in some provinces the SABC has already switched off its analogue signal and viewership has reportedly plummeted.
The DCDT also says that an “active public awareness campaign” has ensured that South Africans are aware of the analogue switch-off.
Thorne and fellow activists dispute this, to say the least. Thorne points out that the original communications programme was supposed to be launched under Louboutin-wearing former communications minister Dina Pule (remember her?), but withered on the vine of corruption.
It was only in October 2021 that Minister Ntshavheni announced the 1 April cut-off date. While Ntshavheni deserves some measure of credit for finally taking firm action on this vexed issue, it is hard to dispute the idea that the communications programme around this has been inadequate.
There are other complaints from the free-to-air TV stations. Thorne says they were promised funding to run campaigns educating their viewers about the migration deadline; this never materialised. A counter-proposal from e.tv regarding the switch-off process was ignored, and e.tv has accordingly approached the courts in a desperate bid to extend the deadline.
Who cares if some South Africans can’t watch Days of our Lives?
Unfathomable as it may seem to some of us, the majority of South Africans still get their news from radio and TV. So it’s not just soapies that are at stake: it’s TV news, which millions still receive from e.tv and SABC.
The prospect of millions of South Africans being suddenly cut off from their main source of news should concern us all.
How do I know if my old TV can pick up a digital signal?
If it has a bunny aerial or antenna aerial, you’re probably in trouble.
You need to check whether your set has an in-built digital tuner.
The DCTC has the following “advice”, in the loose sense of the word:
“The majority of television sets manufactured and distributed after 2015 have digital tuners. To test if your TV has a digital tuner, please run a manual or auto channel search on your TV.”
The DCTC claimed in a recent statement that it has published a list of compatible TV sets on its website. If you can find it, let us know.
Otherwise, you’re probably best off contacting the Help Centre.
If I know an affected household, what should I advise them to do?
If the household earns no more than R3,500 per month, a member can apply to receive a free set-top box from the government at a branch of the Post Office or online.
Ntshavheni has assured such applicants that they will be reconnected to broadcast signal “in three to six months” of the switch-off date.
If you earn more than R3,500 per month, you will have to buy your own set-top box. It has previously been reported that the most affordable option is the OpenView HD box, which is available for around R499. It’s a once-off purchase without monthly fees.
The silver lining in all this is that once you have a set-top box, you’ll have a greater array of channels to watch (though obviously not the DStv premium pickings).
Should I panic?
Absolutely not, says Ntshavheni.
“There is no need for South Africans to panic,” she told Parliament last week. DM