Africa: South Africa’s Digital Switch-Off Will Reshape the Market and Leave an Estimated 14 Million People Without a Signal


London — The switch-off of the analogue signal in Sub-Saharan Africa is often a brutal business that leaves behind many viewers unable to afford the new digital Set-Top-Boxes or TVs with integrated digital receivers. The South African Government is determined to switch off its analogue broadcasting at the end of March 2022. Russell Southwood talks to Mike Aldridge, Broadcast Manager, Cape Town Television about who will be without a signal and the consequences.

Over 60 organizations are asking the Government to reconsider its decision to switch off the analogue signal. Based on data from the Broadcasting Research Council (collected by A.C.Nielsen) 5.7 million households are still receiving an analogue broadcast signal. According to Statistics South Africa, there are 2.51 people per household, meaning around 14.3 million will be cut off.

The Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Khumbudzo Ntshaveni says that these figures are wrong but Aldridge says that she is confused: “She’s looking at TV households but the issue is not how many households but the number of viewers.”

Government policy was to offer “free” Set-Top-Boxes (STBs) to low income households (under R3,500 per month) but the programme has largely failed to deliver. The Government has contracted the manufacture of 1.5 million STBs for the programme but only just over 600,000 have been actively installed.

“In Western Cape only 62 have been installed and in Gauteng only 150. Major retailers did not stock these STBs so the consumer choice was either an integrated STB/TV, which is expensive, or Pay TV. Poorer people can’t afford DStv or don’t want it. The broadcasting companies have also been complaining that there is not much enthusiasm or uptake for digital STBs from the public.”

Far from widening the reach of Free-To-Air broadcasters, the digital transition process seems to be widening the divide between the haves and the have-nots. The pressure has been on to deliver the ‘digital dividend’ and ICASA’s recent spectrum auction raised US$961 million from telecoms companies. So to get the money, the Government has to clear the analogue spectrum ranges: “The Minister is bulldozing it all through.”

The market reshaping is already occurring. Terrestrial transmission is now only 36% of the market: “In the future, it will shrink significantly.” Both Pay TV operator DStv and Free-To-Air satellite operator Openview have made big inroads into the share of terrestrial transmission, carrying the Free-To-Air broadcast channels. The great unspoken is that the DTT monopoly signal carrier Sentech is not very cost-effective: “(Public broadcaster) SABC and eTV are saying that DTT is doomed and that satellite transmission is much more cost-effective.”

The direct consequences of these changes for South African community broadcasters like Cape Town TV will be disastrous: “We’re looking at losing a lot of our Free-To-Air audiences, especially in the lower income groups. It’s a real threat to the channel. For example, churches have been reaching these audiences through our broadcasts. They’ve also been doing them online but many of their congregants don’t have access to broadband and will lose access to church services.”

So if you can’t beat market forces, why not just get on board with DStv and Satellite FTA services like Openview?: “It’s not sufficient for us. Poorer people can’t afford DStv. All the signals on Sentech’s Freevision are encrypted and you need a SIM card. We are lobbying for community TV signals to be unencrypted.”

The other financial pressure on Cape Town TV is that monopoly signal provider Sentech is insisting that it goes from paying for its current single transmitter for Cape Town to having 32 transmitters that cover the whole of the Western Cape Province. Although this gives it a much wider coverage area, it comes at a significant cost and undermines the idea that community TV is local: “ICASA defines community as local but the DTT architecture makes it provincial. There is no policy saying what it is.

It would be easy to say that this was all a South African problem but the changes in the market and the implications are all too clear for other Sub-Saharan markets. Ignore them at your peril. As always, it is Sub-Saharan Africa’s poorer citizens who get shafted.

In Brief

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Zimbabwe: Following Zimbabwe’s National Media Day at Expo 2020 Dubai, several international investor companies have expressed their interest in working with Zimbabwe on the completion of its digitisation programme. The abovementioned statement is according to Monica Mutsvangwa, the Minister for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services in Zimbabwe. The Honourable Minister shared the state of progress following her meeting with Rohde & Schwarz representatives from the German-headquartered firm which manufactures transmitters. Minister Mutsvangwa also mentioned that there were more potential investors making enquiries with an aim to take up programme progress opportunities. “As a result of our media day here at Expo 2020 Dubai, we have generated interest from several investors who are interested in discussions about transmitters,” Minister said.