MPHO A NDABA: Why SA is not prepared for the proposed analogue switch off date
On 5 October 2021, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), under the leadership of Minister Khumbudzo Ntshaveni, announced the end of January 2022 as the new date for the analogue switch off (ASO) in South Africa. The department further indicates that the revised integrated ASO Implementation Plan was approved by Cabinet almost two weeks ago.
The SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition has for years been involved in lobbying for digital terrestrial television (DTT) readiness, which is an essential precondition to the ASO.
This is important because that way, members of the South African public would not be cut off from essential news, and information, which free-to-air service providers - such as the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), e.tv, and community television broadcasters licensed by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) - offer.
Additionally, this is essential to ensure the future viability of terrestrial free-to-air television, which is a vital component of the broadcasting ecosystem in this country.
It is the view of the SOS coalition that the new proposed date is ill-considered and will be impossible to implement without enormous damage to the public, commercial and community broadcasting sectors. Indeed, the only beneficiaries of the ASO going ahead in January 2022 will be the satellite television operators such as DStv, Starsat and OpenView HD.
Frankly, through a series of inept decisions and implementation inaction, the department’s planned migration from analogue terrestrial broadcasting to DTT has been a dismal failure.
The bottom line is that there are less than 600,000 DTT set-top boxes being used in the country. This is out of 16 million television households as measured by the Broadcast Research Council of South Africa.
The impact of this is, simply, that 15,400,000 households will be without access to SABC 1, 2 and 3, e.tv and all community television services from the end of January 2022, unless they are lucky enough to be able to obtain the DTT set-top boxes (which are not readily available commercially) or those who already have access to satellite TV via DStv, OpenView HD or Starsat.
The majority of South Africans are working class, unemployed, or perpetually experience poverty and precarity. These are people who struggle to make ends meet and rely on the SABC, e.tv, and community television stations to access their news, information, sports content, and entertainment.
Switching off analogue terrestrial television signals will fundamentally infringe on the right to access and receive information. This is a fundamental part of the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in the country’s Constitution.
The coalition calls on Icasa, as the constitutionally mandated broadcasting regulator, to add its voice to the growing anger at the DCDT’s announcement.
This is especially important because we expect that Icasa ought to be aware that insufficient migration of analogue terrestrial television within the South African households has taken place.
If Icasa supports this action on the part of the DCDT, then it too as the regulator must be held to account for failing to regulate the broadcasting sector and ensure diversity and fairness as is required in terms of section 192 of the Constitution.
It also matters that we account for the fact that this rushed cut-off date, a consequence of the department’s own DTT migration failures, will particularly harm the SABC. From the perspective of the SABC’s mandate, this move will limit the extent to which the SABC is able to fully carry out its public mandate. And given that many people are still without access to set-top boxes, the SABC’s market share will be negatively impacted, with devastating financial consequences due to advertisers being unable to reach their usual audiences.
In order to act in the public interest, the SOS Coalition is currently in consultation with the rest of civil society and our lawyers with the aim of instituting legal proceedings in the High Court to stop this hastily imposed ASO which will do much damage to the free-to-air broadcasting sector and to the public.
Mpho A Ndaba is project coordinator at the SOS Coalition, a member-based public broadcasting network that campaigns for democratic media and broadcasting. Follow him on Twitter: @Manofcolor_