Community Radio/TV support & Digital Migration by Sentech; ATU & ITU Treaties with Minister

NCOP Public Enterprises and Communication

08 February 2017
Chairperson: Ms E Prins (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services encouraged the Committee to recommend the ratification by the National Council of Provinces of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) Convention of 1999 and the Final Acts  of the 2010 Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). These were needed in order to develop new legislation. The benefits of the ratification were explained such as  receiving recognition and training from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It was noted that no security or serious financial implications for the South African people or government would ensue from the ratification.

The Committee approved the ratification of both instruments with the Democratic Alliance noting its objection to both as it felt that more explanation was needed about the responsibilities of each.

Sentech briefed the Committee on migration towards purely digital transmission of broadcasting across the country, and the end of analogue transmission. This would affect community broadcasters, who would have to change some of their infrastructure and might need training over the next few years. These community broadcasters have been financially supported by Sentech as many owe money to Sentech for use of broadcasting infrastructure which has led to Sentech contributing R57 million in the past four years to for contributions towards the broadcasting sector. Further, community broadcasters owe R14 million in debt to Sentech, which will have to be considered. Sentech hopes that they will be able to find a good resolution and get some financial assistance from the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, as well the Department of Communications, both of which should recognise the important role played by community radio and television stations.

Members showed concern for community broadcasters who are unable to find revenue streams and encouraged the Departments and Sentech to collaborate with the community broadcasters to ensure the future of these broadcasters.

Meeting report

Minister on ratification of two international treaties
The Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Mr Siyabonga Cwele, introduced Mr Robert Nkuna, the new Director General of the Department (DTPS). He noted that they would present two international treaties from 2010 and from 1999 which needed parliamentary approval. The African Telecommunications Union (ATU) Convention of 1999 had important standards which need to be ratified to allow future legislation to be made, without reconsidering cybersecurity and hate speech issues on the internet which are still relevant today.

There is a great need for alliances such as that with the ATU and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). South Africa is a member of Region 1 (R1) in the ITU. The membership of African countries in R1 is sometimes disadvantageous to African countries because of the preference shown for European concerns, which have more advanced applications and telecommunications infrastructure. This was the main rationale behind the creation of the ATU, in order to allow African countries to focus on their primary issues.

Mr Robert Nkuna, DTPS DG, invited the Deputy Director General on International Relations to present.

African Telecommunications Union Convention briefing
Ms Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, Acting Deputy Director General: International Relations, DTPS, said the DTPS recommends that the Committee to approve the application of the 1999 ATU Convention in SA legislation and policy. The ATU was founded in 1977, and SA joined in 1994 in line with foreign policy objectives and the development agenda, promoting the African Renaissance. Namibia recently decided to join the ATU, which will bring the number of member states to 46.

In 1999, ATU was transformed from the Pan African Telecommunications Union, primarily a coordination body for government related activity, to include private and public stakeholders in the information and telecommunications technology sector. The reason for ratification at this time is that in 1999, the Organisation of African Unity was still in existence and the African Union only came about in 2002. Within the AU Constitutive Act, there is no reference to specialised technical agencies, only specialised technical committees. DTPS needed legal clarity for this period of change and whether ATU can still be considered as a part of the post-OAU creation African landscape. The benefits for SA as a member of ATU is that:
•           ATU has strategic linkages with ITU and many African states organise applications for satellites and other technology through ATU to receive support and endorsement.
•           ATU coordinates ICT infrastructure programmes and priorities of submarine cable, terrestrial networks and satellite technology to ensure effective interconnectivity within a country and between countries, regions and continents.
•           The human resource development programme of ATU reaffirms the centrality of training in the development process. This encourages cooperation between countries in ICT training, knowledge management and human capital development.
•           ATU recognises the role of public private partnerships both at the national and international levels through ICT development programmes.
•           ATU emphasises the need for local content development that will celebrate the diversity of the African continent to ensure the universality of ICT benefits.
•           ATU is a strategic organisation that SA would like to partner with to influence the telecoms/ICT development in Africa by providing guidance and strategic leadership roles and responsibilities

The DTPS pays $75 000 per annum for membership in ATU, which was reduced from $86 000 in 2009. This reduction was made possible by the encouragement of MTN and Vodacom to join ATU, as their contributions now make SA’s total annual contribution to ATU over $100 000. The DTPS can improve access to ICT training programmes and e-strategies for women, youth and people with disabilities through its partnership with ATU.

The ratification of the ATU Convention will have no security or financial implications for SA, besides this membership fee. DTPS advises the Committee to support and approve the ratification of this Convention in terms of section 231 (2) of the Constitution.

International Telecommunication Union 2010 Plenipotentiary Conference Final Acts: briefing
DTPS recommends that Parliament approve the Final Acts  of the 2010 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference held in Mexico. The Plenipotentiary Conference  is the top policy making body of the ITU and meets every four years. The work of the ITU aligns closely with Chapter 4 and 7 of the NDP, especially the industry development of economic infrastructure in the ICT sector. The ratification of the Final Acts of the Plenipotentiary Conference  will work towards strengthening SA’s foreign policy, especially its rules-based multilateral system.

The Final Acts from this Conference  dealt with cybersecurity and the immediate challenges countries face in the online world. Computer security response teams were introduced to the different ITU member states to respond to and mitigate online threats. Some countries have concerns about domain names being allocated, and argue that internet addresses should involve participation and input of different states.

The International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) were originally decided on in 1988 in Australia, but at the 2010 Conference, key progress was made, in that these regulations should include new and emerging issues in the ICT space. It has been a controversial process and has taken a long time. Internet protocol based networks were discussed and members were given a chance to give their input about internet resources such as domain names and addresses.

Conformance and interoperability were discussed, as bridging the standardisation gap between developed and developing countries was made a key focus. Building capacity for individual countries to be able to test technology was an important resolution. Human exposure to and measurement of electromagnetic fields was discussed, which has not been properly understood yet by the ITU or the WHO. Child protection in the online space was considered and various strategies were shared. ICTs were considered as contributing to climate change and how they can be used to protect the environment.

ITU Telecom World 2017 events will be held in September  in Korea to look at different ICT themes and market trends. Revenues generated by these events will support the development agenda of the ITU.

The ratification of the Final Acts will have no financial implications for SA, and will lead to continued participation in the ITU by the DTPS. The Department will get back to the ITU Council about ratification. There is a treaty binding all signatories to certain standards in their engagements with other members.

Mr A Nyambi (ANC) said that for an international agreement to bind our country to certain activities, it must receive agreement from both Houses: National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. What part of this process is this ratification involved with now? All monetary values in presentations should be converted to South Africa rands, as this allows Members to contextualise values and amounts.

Ms N Mokgosi (EFF) asked if the implementation of the ATU Convention would benefit those who are poor as well as those with wealth. She congratulated Ms Jordan-Dyani on the quality of her presentations throughout Ms Mokgosi’s time on the Select Committee.

Mr J Julius (DA) said that the Committee needed to understand where the power of decision was vested during these conferences and what was behind these conventions. An independent representative going to represent the interests of different countries could be dangerous for certain decisions, so this process must be better explained.

Mr Julius asked what the implications are of SA being a member of ATU. It is not clear what was resolved at these conferences, and the Committee should not ratify these without them being more clearly explained. Palestine and Serbia are involved in these agreements, which may be controversial considering other international relations.

Ms Z Ncitha (ANC) asked how the benefits of these conventions would help with unemployment. More detail is needed in the discussion of security risks and challenges facing South Africa. Who qualified for access to funds assisting with climate change from the ITU?

Mr O Sefako (ANC) asked if SA is paying the same amount for ITU membership as other countries.

Minister Cwele replied that the ratification discussions are going on concurrently in the National Assembly and the NCOP. This ratification is for the Final Acts of the Conference, which will be implemented and adhered to after this process. These ITU and ATU memberships will benefit the poor as all of these considerations are made with the idea of development and improvement of the quality of life within the country. When the DTPS says there are no security implications, they imply that no new weaknesses will be created through membership in these unions. There is no conflict with the Constitution and national security will in fact be stronger with membership in these unions.

Mr Nkuna agreed that all monetary values should be presented in South African rands. The issue of access to infrastructure and services is very important to the DTPS. Progressive agendas are pushed throughout South African national policies, but more investigation needs to be done on international policies and agreements throughout the ICT sector.

Powers of decision is related to the Constitution and has been done by a representative who is decided on at the time by government processes throughout South Africa’s history. At these conferences, a letter is presented from the President of the member state and which has gone through the process of cabinet approval.

Participation in ATU will contribute to employment through the encouragement of SMMEs to enter the ICT sector. In both ATU and the ITU, security is of the utmost concern and will always be prioritised.

The total costs of ATU participation is about R1.2 million due to the membership fee of about R800 000 and the costs of attending international conferences and conventions. The DTPS performs thorough investigations and analysis before signing agreements and conference acts through the contraction and advice of experts and specialists in the sector.

Mr Julius said he could not comprehend the reasoning behind ratification of the Convention, as he did not feel that the content of the Convention had not been made clear yet. According to section 231 of the Constitution, this ratification would be legally binding.

Mr Cwele said that the ratification is for the Final Acts of the Conference, and that the ratification would indicate a legal agreement to these Final Acts from the South African parliament and government.

Ms Prins asked for Committee approval for the ratification by the NCOP for the Final Acts of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference  of 2010 and the ATU Convention of 1999.

Mr Nyambi moved for the adoption of the ATU Convention of 1999, and Ms Ncitha seconded this. Mr Julius objected to this approval and asked for it to be noted that the DA objected. Mr Mlambo moved for the adoption of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference  of 2010 and Mr Sefako seconded this. Mr Julius objected to this approval and asked that it be noted that the DA objected.

Ms E Prins (ANC), as Acting Chairperson, thanked the Minister and his team for their presentations.

Community Radio/Television support & Digital Migration Process: Sentech briefing
Mr Magatho Mello, Sentech board chairperson, explained that the presentation would inform the Committee on the progress Sentech has made in digital migration and about the support Sentech offers to community radio and TV broadcasters. Some of the costs that the Sentech CEO will share are a consequence of the changes in technology and infrastructure. There will be a capability change in certain areas of broadcasters’ work, but these costs will mostly be related to conforming Sentech to international standards of technology.

Mr Mlamli Booi, CEO of Sentech, said that Sentech supports 121 FM community radio services, 5 community TV services, 5 MW community services and the parliamentary channel. The majority of community broadcasters are in KZN (27) and the Eastern Cape (20). There are two sectors of community broadcasters: communities of interest and geographic communities. A majority of these community radio broadcasters have struggled to pay their financial obligations for broadcasting rights, and some discounts have been granted to certain community broadcasters for their services and their costs to Sentech. The total discount to these broadcasters over the past four financial years has been more than R1 million, and the total costs to Sentech have been in excess of R57 million for contributions towards the broadcasting sector.

In 2015 the Department of Communications issued a draft recommendation for funding of community broadcasters. Sentech did a community engagement to ensure people in communities understand their roles and the analogue tariffs for using outdated hardware and software. Analogue broadcasters are required to have their channels expanded due to the nature of digital broadcasting, whereby existing digital channels cannot be used to broadcast analogue broadcasts. The costs from this process will grow even more as digital broadcasting becomes mandatory and the tariffs will have to rise for the conversion. Community broadcasters are being carried financially by Sentech, but hopefully by the end of this year some conversations will be completed with DTPS to find a way forward for the funding of these community broadcasters. Sentech has to take a decision and take responsibility to inform community broadcasters that it is not possible for Sentech to continue funding community broadcasters and that, to date, community broadcasters owe Sentech up to R14 million, which will have to be dealt with.

Sentech as an infrastructure company has a mandate and a responsibility to provide a digital replica of all television broadcasts, which has been running since 2008. This digital network covers 87% of the country, and the conversion towards digital has been mostly successful throughout. Sentech has to build a monitoring system to examine each site and investigate the broadcasting quality of each area remotely, in order to determine the quality of broadcasting. This will hopefully be completed by the end of this financial year. A disaster recovery project will be completed by the end of next year to ensure broadcasts continue during a natural disaster.

All stakeholders were informed of analogue switch-offs that will end transmission of analogue signals, which have been ongoing in border areas especially, where our national neighbours might have already switched over to digital-only transmission. Eastern Cape, Kwazulu Natal and Western Cape provinces will be dealt with last as the border issue is an area of first concern. Users must have a digital-receiving device in order to receive a digital signal, and there must be sufficient awareness that analogue devices will stop working in the near future. Call centres and migration support centres must support users of analogue transmission and assist them in switching over to digital. Financial assistance from the Department of Communications is much appreciated in the operation of these call centres. Currently, Sentech runs two networks, one analogue and one digital, and costs will decrease once the migration towards digital transmission is completed.

Mr Sefako asked if there was any strategy to improve the self-sustainability of these community broadcasting organisations. These radio stations could be used to advertise government or other programmes, which could form a new type of income for many organisations.

Mr Nyambi said that on Committee oversight to various community broadcasters, the conditions of financial and infrastructural capacity of different radio stations vary greatly. Some stations have a lot of opportunity and income, while others are struggling. More differentiation should be made between these stations and their conditions, in order to allow the Committee to make more informed decisions. The amount that is owed to Sentech by community broadcasters, does this come mostly from television or radio broadcasters? Why is the vacancy rate above 20% at Sentech management level? This is a worrying facet of Sentech’s operations.

Ms Ncathi asked what the recourse for Sentech will be if a community broadcaster is unable to pay its debts. If these broadcasters are shut down, there could be serious implications in some communities. The political nature of community broadcasters should be considered, and Departments should collaborate to decide on the future of these broadcasters.

Ms Prins asked if the switching off of analogue signal in some areas had affected the communities they are located in.

Mr Mello replied that at the last Sentech board strategy session, a resolution was taken that requests the re-thinking of the development strategy of the company, and that broadcasting capacity should be provided for various broadcasters that do not at the moment have this capacity. Management structures are a challenge for many of these and mechanisms must be put together to support broadcasters who struggle to connect to advertisers and other revenue streams. Sentech must look at assisting these broadcasters, so that not every community broadcaster must source its own technology. Sentech’s enterprise development must be directed towards assisting these existing community broadcasters. Sentech will look at sharing its activities more often with broadcasters and community members in general.

Mr Booi replied that most of the debt owed to Sentech from community broadcasters are from radio stations, while television broadcasters usually pay for their services. Due to the size of the migration process, it has been lengthy but the technology should be in place by the end of the first quarter of 2017/18. Sentech’s senior management vacancy level has been decreased to one vacancy, and the problem of vacancies has been greatly tackled by the company over the past few years. The vacancy rate throughout the company stands at 8% currently. Sentech’s recourse if not paid by community broadcasters is legally harsh and they may turn off broadcasters who have not paid. However, due to considerations of the social implications of this route, Sentech has decided not to take matters to court but to rather find a solution with community broadcasters and the departments involved. More than R20 million was spent in providing support to community broadcasters in the past financial year. In the areas where Sentech has already turned off analogue sites, satellites and other terrestrial broadcasting devices have been utilised to ensure that no users are without any signal.

Ms Prins thanked Sentech for their presentation and the meeting was adjourned.

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