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Digital Inclusion

Court orders SA digital migration delayed until June

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South Africa's migration from analogue to digital television will have to wait a bit longer after a court ruling on Monday pushed back the official switch off date by another three months.

South Africa missed the International Telecommunication Union's June 2015 deadline for all countries to switch from analogue to digital terrestrial TV and in 2022 has still only partially migrated to digital TV.

The migration matters because TV broadcasters are still using sections of the 800MHz and 700MHz spectrum bands which are supposed to be allocated to telecoms operators to roll out mobile broadband services. In fact, SA's telecoms regulator has already auctioned off spectrum in these bands to telecos for billions of rands.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) had set March 31, 2022 as the official analogue switch off date but the Pretoria High Court ruling has pushed the deadline back to June 30, 2022.

DCDT Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni didn't seem too worried about the ruling saying the department welcomed the deferment which would give government sufficient time to complete installations of set-top-boxes for low-income households before the analogue switch off.

Court battle

The court case was brought against the department by free-to-air broadcaster eTV which wanted more time for its viewers before the switch off, but the three-month extension will be seen as a small victory for the broadcaster.

"Minister Ntshavheni is elated that the applications of eTV and the intervening parties have been dismissed with costs. She urges eTV to accept the ruling of the Court and desist from further attempts to derail the process of digital migration which will release the much-anticipated high frequency spectrum," her ministry said in a statement.

eTV tried to argue that the March switch off would leave millions of poor South Africans without free-to-air TV and wanted the court to declare the deadline as unlawful and invalid.

The court however ruled that government had done enough within its powers to help the qualifying households – those with an income of R3,500 (US$239) per month or less – to receive assistance.

However, about half a million households that have registered for set-top-boxes are yet to received them, so the three-month extension gives government sufficient time to complete the installations.

Transition period

The department also said that the June date coincides well with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa's (ICASA's) plans to end the transition period for broadcasting services and signal distributors to vacate the 800MHz – 700MHz band.

"The Minister deems it significant that the Court has concurred with her and the other respondents that digital migration must be concluded, and the country must have a set date."

ICASA reiterated this in a statement saying that spectrum licenses issued in the successful auction concluded on March 17, 2022, will only commence on July 1, 2022.

From April 1 to June 30 will now be a "transitional period for broadcasting service licensees and signal distributors to ensure a seamless transition process for the switch-off of the remaining analogue transmitters," ICASA said.

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*Top image is of South African Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni briefing the media on the outcomes of a Cabinet meeting on May 26, 2021. (Source: GovernmentZA on Flickr via CC 2.0).

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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