Is the government determined to kill free television?
The promise of digital TV
In 2008, the government introduced digital terrestrial television (DTT) to replace analogue TV, with a promise it would provide a free DTT box to indigent households to ensure a seamless conversion to digital TV. Half the 16-million homes in the country with television probably fall into this category.
In the 14 years since then:
- The state rolled out less than 800,000 DTT boxes.
- DStv was given permission to create a cheap pay bouquet, currently costing R29 a month, and rolled out 9-million boxes in SA.
- eMedia launched Openview and poured every cent it earned for seven years into building a free satellite bouquet from scratch to avoid being squeezed out of business. Today, Openview reaches 2.7-million homes for free.
- There are still another 3.5-million homes, primarily of people who cannot afford to buy a box, who rely on free analogue TV.
State shifts policy to urgently shutting down analogue TV despite DTT stagnation
In his state of the nation address in February 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the government would close down analogue TV to make way for 5G mobile technology by March 2022.
The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) and the regulator, Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA), immediately raced to auction spectrum to telecom companies. This was done with no consultation with affected television broadcasters, nor any apparent care for what would happen to free TV.
Our protests went unheeded until we were driven to interdict the process from proceeding without consultation. The court process obliged the minister to at least pretend to listen.
We offered to completely step out of the way of the proposed 5G mobile telephony auction. This could be achieved simply by returning the frequencies of only nine (out of 94) of our transmitters. Doing so would allow the auction to be implemented without rushing to cut off millions of people from free TV.
All nine of the proposed new frequencies can be easily accommodated. There will be no interference between our use of these frequencies and that of any neighbouring country. Nor would it be contrary to any international agreement or undertaking made by the SA government in any world forum co-ordinating the use of spectrum.
The Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni undertook to consider this solution if Sentech, the signal distributor for SA’s broadcasting sector, and Icasa were agreeable. With the support of Sentech and with the positive recommendation of the Icasa office, we applied to the Icasa council for permission to retune these nine transmitters. Icasa has to date left this application unattended and simply proceeded with the telecom auction on the premise that bidders will be able to use the spectrum auctioned from the date we are kicked off it.
The minister then continued the original plan to switch off not only the use of the spectrum needed for the auction, but all spectrum used by analogue television from April 1 2022. Inexplicably, the court acquiesced to this — except for moving the date to June 30 2022 as it felt April 1 was too abrupt.
We say the court decision is disappointing because it was common cause in the matter before it that there are still more than 3-million indigent households without access to digital television and the state has only a few 100,000 DTT boxes remaining (which have been lying at the post office for many years) and has neither a plan to order more boxes, nor the ability to do so timeously given the world shortage of electronic chipsets. It is also inexplicable to us why the court appeared not to consider our proposed solution in the matter.
What are the implications for free TV users?
The millions of households who cannot obtain a DTT box for free and are unable to afford to buy an Openview box will be left without television at all.
Will the government honour its often-repeated promises to them? Judging from the minister’s statement to the court, we consider that it is most unlikely.
Equally importantly — will the government maintain the DTT system at all? Again, it looks highly unlikely for several reasons:
- Of the seven multiplexes in the original design of DTT, only two were rolled out in the initial phase. The government has now abandoned its commitment to roll out the further five multiplexes originally planned.
- M-Net and the eMedia group (which occupy one of the multiplexes that have been built) have written to Sentech more than a year ago to jointly advise that we have been obliged to drastically reduce the footprint of our respective channels as DTT’s audience reach is so limited. It is, as a result, completely unaffordable beyond 14 transmitters covering the main cities.
- Over the last decade, technology has moved on considerably and a 5G broadcast platform is expected to be available in the next two years. This platform will rapidly replace DTT audiences because it will be accessible not only from TV sets, but also from laptop computers, mobile phones and the like, which is not the case with DTT.
- Lastly, one must take into consideration the DTT network in SA has already been in operation for more than a decade and its hardware is considerably far down the road of its useful life. It is highly improbable this equipment will be replaced on the old technology that DTT represents.
Without a substantial ongoing state subsidy for DTT, it has a limited life. There is no commitment by the government to providing such a subsidy. If Sentech shuts it down, will indigent homes be helped to move platforms again? This seems unlikely.
What is eMedia’s commitment to the public?
We are determined to save free television, not only for ourselves as a business but as a necessary service to our country with its large indigent population. Our offer to step aside from the spectrum needed for implementing the 5G mobile service remains open to Icasa — whenever it decides to consider our application to retune the nine transmitters.
But we will continue to approach the courts to preserve the use of spectrum, which does not interfere with any other national imperative for the broadcasting of analogue TV. We will do this until all TV households across SA are connected to a viable digital platform which offers TV to indigent homes for free, or when they are happy to rely on pay TV alone. DM