South Africa’s analogue switching off (ASO) has been brought forward by a year and will start next month, as the Communications and Digital Technologies Department attempts to kick-start the country’s digital migration policy again, which has been delayed for years.

South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital broadcasting is moving ahead. But just like previous years, it will not be smooth sailing.

The department’s acting director-general Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani told Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications that the switch off will be completed at the end of March next year.

“The last major cities that would be switched off is the 26 th  of March 2022. The process of switch off is called restacking when we prepare what was then the towers/sites and restack them for use of IMT (International Mobile Telecommunications) spectrum services. That takes about three weeks. The readiness of those particular sites to be used for IMT services would be three weeks from the 26 th  of March 2022.,” she said.

Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg are the last cities designated for the switch off. But if the briefing is anything to go by, the process will not be easy. Around 70% of the components for set-top boxes (STBs) are manufactured outside of South Africa, there is a shortfall in funding for the boxes and not enough installers.

Committee chairperson Boyce Maneli raised his concerns about the lack of components, asking if there were any discussions with the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) to ensure that more STBs were produced to meet the deadline. STBs are the hardware device that allows a digital signal to be received, decoded and displayed on a television.

Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams told the committee that the DTI was involved in the process and provided a list of approved manufacturers.

She said the Digital Economy Masterplan, which is currently being finalised before it goes to Cabinet and the Parliament, highlighted the need to industrialise the electronic industry. She would soon issue a policy directive on the necessary technologies.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said she wanted to avoid South Africa becoming a “dumping site” for cheap devices and merely consuming tech being developed in the rest of the world.

“The capacity we do have as a country (but) not specifically the department… (A) partnership with the private sector should not be shied away from. The era we are operating in now requires the cooperation of everyone,” she said.

The department has warned Cabinet about the shortfall on funding for STBs and integrated digital television (IDTV). Treasury allocated R1.6-billion to the department to be distributed over three years. Cabinet has given the department permission to source alternative funding because three years is too long to wait for the money from Treasury.

The department will spend the next weeks meeting manufacturers and drawing up a timeline, which will be made available to the committee. Manufacturers have warned that even if there is money, some factors are out of their control as they need components from outside the country.

On the installers, the department said it had met Ellies Electronics – the training agent – to ascertain the number of installers in the country.
And it would meet them again on how the company’s plans to liquidate its manufacturing department would impact the process. Ellies says it has been severely hampered by the lack of movement to digital terrestrial television. The Democratic Alliance’s Cameron MacKenzie raised the matter during the briefing.

“We also have these concerns and how it will affect the BDM (broadcast digital migration) projects, although Ellies will not be shutting down their manufacturing immediately,” Ndabeni-Abrahams responded.

But going forward, the department has decided to employ a rapid deployment team comprising all stakeholders, to ensure that updates on the project happen every month so that bottlenecks can be identified.

The committee heard from the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) that a new tender will be advertised for IDTVs after it transpired that companies could not fulfil the technical aspects.

No IDTVs were distributed last year, even though it was part of the country’s Covid-19 intervention plan for Grade 12 pupils who were stuck at home during lockdown.

The department has warned though that the biggest challenge will be the technical switch, which it says state-owned signal distributor Sentech is managing.

By: Amy Musgrave