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Last chance to catch digital bus

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By Asha Speckman

Johannesburg - On Monday the Department of Communications will meet with free-to-air broadcasters and other industry players to decide on solutions to the impasse over the management of the set-top box control system, which is threatening to delay the full switchover to digital television by another three years.

The delay in the rollout of digital migration threatens to set back the introduction of internet-driven businesses and services in South Africa including the introduction of broadband into the mass market, according to Themba Phiri, the deputy director for information and communication policy development.

“That is a very important opportunity for the country if we are not able to migrate. This will delay the introduction of job-creating competitive services in South Africa. It also speaks to the delay of additional broadband in the market.”

Phiri said this week that the department still intended to launch the rollout of digital TV by June or July, but even this would not speed up the process of migration by the international deadline of June 2015.

“Two years would not be enough to complete migration altogether. We are expecting a delay of months, even up to 2016, according to our calculations,” he said.

On the continent, South Africa, which has better manufacturing capabilities and is initially expected to export set-top boxes to a large African market, falls behind in digital migration.

“We are seeing countries like Lesotho, Botswana and Tanzania beginning to roll out digital terrestrial television,” he said, but added it was clear the process was not smooth sailing – except in Tanzania.

Digital migration will affect every South African as it involves the process of shedding analogue broadcasting for better quality digital methods.

The International Telecommunications Union said previously that it cannot guarantee the protection of signal for countries that are still using analogue broadcasting after 2015

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The digital dividend is crucial to telecoms operators who want additional spectrum to roll out high-performance broadband services. The government also wants spectrum from the digital dividend to be used for the rollout of broadband to rural areas.

Phiri said the meeting with broadcasters would also review timelines on the project plan.

Sentech, the state’s signal distributor, was expected to complete the rollout of transmission infrastructure by 2015.

The SABC, however, will face challenges because it needs R5 billion for new content.

Phiri could not provide clarity on how the SABC’s funding gap will be addressed.

Much remains murky on the digital migration project. But the department achieved progress last year with the finalisation of a broadcasting migration policy, a set-top box manufacturing strategy and the specifications for the set-top boxes that will decode and convert digital TV signals into content that can be viewed via analogue-enabled TV sets.

The department had dev-eloped a subsidy strategy and will sponsor set-top boxes for five million poor households.

The government will pay for 70 percent of the total cost of the box with selected manufacturers that will make a certain amount of boxes at a certain price, according to Phiri.

He said the subsidy would be paid in tranches and be aligned to the volumes of set-top boxes placed in the market by manufacturers.

The 5 million-plus households are expected to qualify for the subsidy will receive vouchers to redeem a set-top box.

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