It’s comforting to know that South Africa now has a formal, cabinet-approved digital migration policy, and even more so that our digital TV future will be curated by a Digital Dzonga (“digital south”) Advisory Council, drawn from the industry, labour and public, and reporting to the Minister of Communications.
The announcement will come as a relief to the industry, as so much was on hold pending the details. Most positive of all is the Government’s commitment to inclusiveness, and its decision to subsidise the set-top boxes that are needed to convert digital broadcast signals into analogue signals that can be received by existing TV sets. The poorest of the poor, estimated at 4,5-million of the country’s 7,5-million TV-viewing households, will pay around R250 for a set-top box as opposed to the commercial price of R700. This is one of the few technology policy decisions of recent years that has the likely effect of benefiting the poorest of the poor, although much can also be said about the appropriateness of the pricing. But reading the detail of the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy, it is in fact one of the first positive initiatives towards narrowing the digital divide. But it also has the potential of further frustrating precisely those it is intended to benefit.
It’s been obvious since digital migration was first announced in 2007 that the deadline for switching off analogue TV signal — November 1 2011 — is far too short. Transformation of the electronics industry in order to include disadvantaged sectors of society is the first requirement of Cabinet, and that must still take place before the set top-boxes are produced. Then, the set-top boxes must first not only be produced, but also be approved, before roll-out can begin. Roll-out is projected to start around mid-2009, giving us just over two years to get the boxes not only to around 7-million households in total, but as part of that total, around 4,5-million subsidised boxes to the poorest of the poor – all of whom have to qualify for the subsidy according to a process yet to be set out.
We need to learn from recent history that mass roll-outs of this kind don’t work in a very short time frame. From the debacles of the driver’s licenses and vehicle registration systems to the FICA requirements at banks and the failures associated with HANIS (the Home Affairs National Identification System) and RICA (the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act — the act requiring full identification and address details with purchase of SIM cards from July 2006), it is clear that mass conversion needs a carefully phased approach. FICA and RICA were only about getting information from customers, for whom the banks and cellphone companies already had contact information. Here we are expecting a mass roll-out that requires both information and product distribution in an environment where most of the beneficiaries are rural or deep-rural households.
Even when the analogue switch off date of November 2011 was first announced in 2007, it appeared too ambitious. With time, we are seeing just how much more ambitious it is. Given that the global deadline for analogue switch-off is 2015, and given the huge logistic challenges the roll-out poses, a 2013 or even 2014 deadline would have been more appropriate.
While there is no shame in the government pushing the deadline back, there is a great deal of embarrassment, frustration and resistance to be had in chasing a deadline that may well result in millions of South Africans fearing that they are about to be left behind. Announce an extension now and we will all nod our heads in sympathy and approval. Announce it on 31 October 2011, and we will have a populace baying for blood.
The combination of the ambitious roll-out and the seemingly high cost will not jeopardise digital migration as such, but it means that by the time the deadline arrives in 2011, the digital migration landscape will probably still be a construction site. Instead of helping us cross the digital divide, it may find us still sitting in a digital donga.