Global Observer

South Africa stumbles to Digital TV

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The South African government told citizens to be prepared for the coming of digital television. It was to be ushered in ahead of the 2010 World Cup, freeing up valuable broadcast spectrum across the country for uses not yet conceived for technologies yet to be invented. Then it was delayed.

JOHANNESBURG--The South African government told citizens to be prepared for the coming of digital television. It was to be ushered in ahead of the 2010 World Cup, freeing up valuable broadcast spectrum across the country for uses not yet conceived for technologies yet to be invented. Then it was delayed. Setting a more realistic timetable, the government told local electronic manufacturers to ready themselves for a bidding process to make set-top boxes that would decode the digital signals; the plan was to roll them out by November 2011. The boxes would be largely subsidized, and the transition would prove an excellent opportunity to expand local manufacturing. But then the plan was delayed, again.

Now, with a June 2015 deadline for the switch to digital television looming, the minster of communications is again trying to begin the transition that many countries have already made. The government and the private sector are again running into problems, many unique to South Africa.

Despite an initial delay, when the US shift to digital TV was made in June 2009, it was a seemingly smooth affair. Many of the same worries that American politicians and industry experts had at the time of the transition are now magnified in South Africa.

It is worried the poor will be unduly affected by the switchover. New digital television requires a convertor box that will cost roughly $80, well out of the reach of many South Africans. Of the 11.5 million households with televisions in the country, it is believed that 5 million of those will not be able to afford a convertor box, at nearly any cost.

The government sees this need as an opportunity, promising to heavily subsidize millions of set-top boxes for its poorer citizens. It's also pledged to work with South African manufacturers to make the boxes for the local market, setting aside $30 million in each of the next two years for the subsidy. The government hopes to eventually export the boxes to surrounding countries as they make their inevitable changeovers to digital TV.

Still, the repeated delays and an apparent lack of communication between the government and private manufactures have left many in the industry wary of the program. They say that the subsidy - based on a voucher system that could be redeemed at retailer - is inefficient and the money could be better spent on supporting local manufacturers directly.

South African telecommunication companies are chomping at the bit for their piece of the spectrum that will be freed up by the eventual switch to digital signals. Many see it as an opportunity to deliver wireless broadband to large stretches of rural South Africa. The transition in the economic powerhouse of the content could ultimately serve as a blueprint to similar transitions throughout southern Africa.

South Africa is a member of the International Telecommunications Union. The organization calls for member states to finish the transition to digital TV by 17 June 2015.

Illustration - Photo: flickr/Jonas' Design's

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Dave Mayers

Correspondent, Johannesburg

Correspondent, Johannesburg Dave Mayers has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the World Picture Network. He has taught multimedia journalism at Wits University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He holds degrees from St. John's University and Columbia. He is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure