30 Jul 2015
The New Age published an opinion piece by Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi on 30 July 2015
The recent ruling in favour of government by the North Gauteng High Court regarding set-top-boxes is not only a victory for government but a victory for every South African. The ruling clears the way for government to speed up the process of digital migration and broadband roll-out to the benefit of all.
The court ruled against the broadcaster’s challenge to the government’s decision not to encrypt set-top-boxes for digital broadcasts. It agreed with us that the encryption will increase the cost of set-top-boxes and make it impossible for lower income households to afford them.
Disagreements and legal challenges have contributed to the delay in meeting the deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union to migrate from receiving broadcasts in analogue to digital. All countries that are party to the Geneva 2006 Agreement for Digital Broadcasting were expected to complete the migration by 17 June 2015.
South Africa, as a signatory, was unable to meet the deadline largely because of factors that were beyond its control. Countries that did not migrate by the deadline are no longer protected from radio frequency spectrum interference, particularly from neighbouring countries.
However, our inability to meet the deadline has not resulted in a blackout or disruptive television signals. Once it became apparent that we would not meet the deadline we immediately implemented plans to minimise the potential radio frequency interference.
South Africa has signed bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries to minimise cross-border radio frequency spectrum interference. We have signed agreements with Lesotho, Botswana and Mozambique and are doing the same with Zimbabwe, Namibia and Swaziland.
The purpose of these agreements is to harmonise the use of Radio Frequency Spectrum to ensure that there is no interference. They also include the sharing of migration plans, processes to handle frequency spectrum interference and the release of digital dividends timing.
We have also prioritised communities along the borders of the country for the distribution of set-top-boxes to mitigate any potential frequency spectrum interference. The government has set aside over R3 billion to provide free set-top-boxes to more than five million poor households in the country.
The information and criteria that will be used to identify poor households who qualify for free boxes will be announced soon. However, all applicants will be subjected to means tests to determine whether they qualify for indigent status. Those who do not qualify will have to purchase them.
Television viewers who subscribe to digital satellite television do not have to buy the set-top-boxes because it is already digital. However, they are obliged to pay their television licences in order to receive free-to-air channels.
In keeping with government's policy to grow small businesses, the manufacturing and installation of set-top-boxes will be done locally to create work opportunities for the youth to enter the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector.
We are resolute that digital broadcasting will become a reality within the next 18 to 24 months. This is in line with our National Development Plan to create a robust, reliable, secure and affordable ICT infrastructure. It calls for a National ICT policy that supports the needs of the economy and the migration from analogue will promote industrial development, job creation and access to information.
The shift will release limited radio frequency spectrum which is used for the purposes of both broadcasting and telecommunications. It will lead to a more efficient use of available spectrum since digital broadcasts only require a fraction of the spectrum required by analogue broadcasts.
It will also allow for more channels and more content to be broadcast in the same bandwidth as one current analogue channel uses. In addition, it will connect rural and urban, rich and poor ensuring that South African citizens transact and communicate more effectively with the use of technology.
We are making headway to ensure digital migration becomes a reality. To succeed, everyone in the country must work with government to ensure that it is a success.
This is the time to put aside our differences and place the interest of our nation first by ensuring that we move the country forward and deliver digital television to all South Africans.