After a week of grilling in parliament over the SABC, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi has turned her attention to the slow journey towards digital migration in the country, intensifying her campaign to reach the target of registering five million households that qualify for free set-top boxes (television decoders).
In KwaZulu-Natal, where she has been running a door-to-door awareness and registration drive, 50 475 of the nearly 100 000 qualifying households in the province had registered by December 7.
The roll-out of these decoders has had many hiccups since the inception of the policy in 2008, after an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) decision for member countries to migrate their broadcasting services from analogue to digital systems.
Cabinet approved the move for the country’s digital signal to be switched on by November 1, 2008, with analogue signal set to be switched off on November 1, 2011.
The deadline has moved several times since that year, after a legal dispute between the department and free-to-air broadcaster e.tv over the set-top box conditional access (CA) system, which was legal requirement in the Broadcast Digital Migration Policy of 2010.
A dispute over Muthambi’s decision not to encrypt the boxes caused further delays this year, after the Supreme Court of Appeal judgment in May struck down her decision not to encrypt the devices.
Broadcaster MultiChoice and Muthambi are set to challenge the judgment at the Constitutional Court in February. Nationally, the total number of registered households has barely dented the target, at a meagre 100 000.
Muthambi’s spokesperson Mishack Molakeng said the department was happy with progress.
“If you look at the number of registered households nationally, we have done well, we are nearing 100 000 household registrations,” said Molakeng.
Of those households, he said, only 75 000 had had set top boxes installed. Arthur Goldstuck, head of technology research organisation World Wide Worx, said the government’s constant shifting of the goalposts was due to an impracticable policy. He said the government’s insistence on sector transformation (of the electronics industry) as a prerequisite for giving out tenders for manufacturers was an impractical and political decision.
“They required that the electronic manufacturing industry transform itself as a sector to prepare for the bidding process. The digital migration goal was very clear but the process comprised many other goals, which we were never going to achieve in the time required,” he said.