For many years the Ministry and Department of Communications have been mocked for the failure to meet the 2015 international deadline to convert terrestrial broadcasting to digital.
Now they are being lambasted for rushing the process. It seems they just can’t get it right.
This week’s squabble around the issue tells us a great deal about this government, its competence and its proclaimed commitment to the poor and to 4IR.
Going digital should free up significant bandwidth and allow for more channels and better quality signals, but the conversion is a complicated one. It has to be planned and executed carefully to manage the impact on our existing channels, who face severe cost implications, and on the audience that may be reluctant or unable to fork out for the set-top boxes that will be required. Many countries have battled with the conversion, more so in a country where it is estimated that as many as 5-million households may not be able to afford the switch and would be left without access to the most basic public communication and information.
The delays had many implications. For one thing, both DSTV and OpenView were able to use the time to expand their market shares. Now, in the country’s 16-million television households, an extraordinary 11,7 million are already digital, by virtue of having DSTV (9 million) or OpenView (2,7 million).
Also, much of the equipment installed by Sentech, the signal provider, and others to be ready for the planned switchover seven years ago, will already be outdated.
The government originally said it would subsidise 5 million set-top boxes for households which earned less than R3 500 per month, but when fewer houses registered for the boxes, the number reduced to about 1,5 million.
The rollout of these boxes has been inordinately slow. The SABC has said that only 165 000 boxes have been installed in eligible houses. The SOS Save Our Broadcasting campaign say that currently only about 100 installations are happening daily. And despite President Cyril Ramaphosa saying that “no-one will be left behind”, there has been little communication or other activity to speed this up.
Depending on whose numbers you use, there are somewhere between 3,5 and 5 million households who are still only on analogue, in other words watching only free-to-air television. At a modest 2,5 people per household, this means between 10 and 15 million people will be cut off. In other words, there is a substantial “missing middle” – those who are not eligible for the subsidised boxes but still cannot afford the upgrade.
Having made little progress for years, the government recently toughened up with President Cyril Ramaphosa promising in his State of the Nation speech that the analogue signal would be switched off at the end of this month.
The curious part is that the Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni and her Department appeared to do little to prepare people for the fact that many would lose their access to this crucial medium. Nor does it appear that Ntshavheni has engaged with the industry about the cost implications, which may threaten the sustainability of some broadcasters.
Fortunately, a court this week delayed the switch-off for three months. This gives a chance for preparation, but the court accepted the Minister’s implausible promise that the set-top box rollout would be completed in time.
The SABC board – in a difficult position because it is criticising its shareholder representative, the Minister – issued a diplomatic statement last week, saying that the plan to turn off the analogue signal this week “presents an unsustainable risk to the rights of millions of indigent households as well as the corporation’s turnaround strategy”.
This brought a furious, threatening response from the Minister. She accused them of making false claims and threatened to withhold financial aid to the corporation and withdraw her support for their last set of financial measures.
It was a tantrum, an attempt to bully the SABC, and it lacked the dignity of a cabinet member. Worse, the Minister showed a lack of understanding and appreciation of the SABC Board’s independence, including its right to differ from her. She represents a state and political interest in delivering on the promise of a digital switch-over; the SABC Board has to look after the public broadcaster’s financial position, its sustainability and its obligations to its audience, all of which are seriously affected by the switchover.
Fortunately, the SABC board stood its ground and did not back off.
Hopefully, the Minister will put her mind to managing a smooth process, working with the others players rather than going to war with them.
*Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Executive Director of the Campaign for Free Expression.