The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies briefed the Committee on the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme, which entailed migrating the country from analogue to digital broadcasting and distributing set-top boxes to indigent households.
On 28 March 2022, the Gauteng High Court passed judgement setting out 507 251 households had to migrate by 30 June 2022, and a further 260 868 households had to migrate by 30 September 2022. Installations are currently underway in all nine provinces. The Department was making progress with compliance with the March court ruling and supported the Minister in migrating households registered by 31 October 2021. It was also supported with analogue switch-off (ASO) concluded by 30 June 2022. As at 22 May 2022, an amount of 201 274 installations out of the targeted 507 251 installations had been made across the nine provinces.
The Department appointed 967 local SMMEs companies to render installation services across the nine provinces. There had been several tenders which were issued for the installers through Sentech. To date, 163 SABC and nine ETV analogue transmitters had been switched off and a further 39 SABC analogue transmitters were ready to be switched off. The spectrum re-stacking process had commenced as soon as the analogue switch-off in a province had been concluded. In provinces where the analogue had been switched off, the Department had concluded re-arranging spectrum, also called re-stacking, giving way for the spectrum to be assigned for future technology usages.
Committee Members said the number of indigent households had initially been estimated to be five million; however, with the COVID-19 outbreak, thousands of people lost jobs. The number of indigent households would surely have increased. Members asked if the Department had enough money to cater for the increased number of indigent households and if the set-top boxes were locally produced. If so, how many jobs had been created through its production throughout the country?
Members also asked how confident the Department was it would reach its target of 500 000 installed set-top boxes, and consequently be able to switch off all analogue broadcasting nationwide by 30 June 2022 per the High Court ruling.
The Department missed the 2015 deadline, set by International Telecommunications Union (ITU), for the complete switch-over to digital broadcasting. Members asked if there were any penalties the Department faced for missing the 2015 deadline; if there were any pending cases or litigation lawsuits from organisations against the Department, about the BDM programme. If so, this may affect the Department’s ability to reach its targets.
The Chairperson said the meeting was taking place on 1 June, which was a very important month on the South African calendar, as the nation acknowledged the role played by youth in the liberation of the country. The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies was expected to present a progress update on the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme to the Committee. The Minister was attending a Cabinet cluster meeting and sent an apology, and the Deputy Minister was out of the country and sent an apology.
Mr M Nhanha (DA, Eastern Cape) said it was unfortunate to see the Minister and the Deputy Minister absent on the same day Mr Mkiva was chairing the Committee meeting for the first time. The Minister and Deputy Minister’s absenteeism at Committee meetings, especially on Wednesday mornings with the Department, had been a standing problem. In the past, it was proposed Wednesday morning meetings should be re-scheduled to the afternoons to accommodate the Minister and Deputy Minister, considering Cabinet meetings were also scheduled for Wednesday mornings. Regarding the Deputy Minister being abroad, the Deputy Minister was not expected to be physically present at the meeting. It was possible to join the meeting platform from anywhere around the world. If the Committee could not get one of the political heads to be present at the meeting, there would be no one to respond to political matters the Committee would raise.
The Chairperson said Mr Nhanha raised a valid point, and it would be raised in an upcoming hand-over meeting the Chairperson was scheduled to have with the previous Chairperson of the Committee.
Mr Nhanha said he was happy the point would be considered, but it was worth being put on record that he would object to the absence of the political heads at the Committee’s meetings with the Department in future.
The Chairperson handed over to the Department to make its presentation.
Opening remarks by the Acting Director-General
Ms Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, Acting Director-General, Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), said the Deputy Minister was set to speak at the World Summit on Information Society, a programme at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This year South Africa stood the chance of being elected to the ITU Council and it was important for the Deputy Minister to represent the country there.
The Department would update the Committee on the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme. The BDM was important because of the digital transformation steps the Department was taking to redefine South Africa’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) path and digital economy. In March 2022, the High Court ruled in support of the programme and deadline for migration in South Africa was set for 30 June 2022. Before the March court ruling, the Department concluded analogue switch-off in five provinces: Northern Cape, Free State, North West, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo. In those provinces, the process of re-stacking, which refers to cleaning up the spectrum used for analogue and auctioning it for use by the International Mobile Telecommunications, 4G and 5G spectrum, had also been started.
The Department also distributed set-top boxes to the indigent households across all nine provinces. Over 300 000 of the targeted 500 000 set-top boxes had been distributed and the Department was working to ensure it met the target by 30 June 2022. The Department worked with Sentech and the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA). It reached its set-top box distribution target for Gauteng. The province was ready for the switch-off of analogue but would be reserved as the last to switch off because it had been the first to switch on broadcasting in the country.
The Department’s programme was designed to empower local communities. Installers from each respective province had done the installations for the set-top boxes. The BDM programme would open up the opportunity to trigger growth in the broadcasting sector, and Sentech was developing a cloud-based, hybrid streaming platform for content distribution to enable more free-to-view and public broadcasting services. The country had set a target to create 102 TV channels by 2025, and South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) wanted to increase its channelling to 12 once the migration was complete.
Presentation: BDM Progress update
Ms Tshego Mpete, Head of Project Management Office: BDM, DCDT, said since the last Committee meeting, there had been three key developments which shaped the Department’s focus and influenced the timelines for the BDM project:
1) The Minister gazetted 31 March 2022 as the analogue switch-off (ASO) date
2) Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) had pronounced a transitional period for the remaining analogue switch-offs
3) The Gauteng High Court had ruled ASO should be concluded by 30 June 2022
On 28 March 2022, the Gauteng High Court passed the judgement setting out 507 251 households had to be migrated by 30 June 2022, and a further 260 868 households had to be migrated by 30 September 2022.
Installations were currently underway in all nine provinces and the Department was making progress with aligning to the March court ruling. The ruling supported the Minister migrating users registered by 31 October 2021 and supported ASO being concluded by 30 June 2022. As at 22 May 2022, 201 274 installations had been made across the nine provinces, out of a total targeted number of 507 251 installations.
The Department appointed 967 companies, all local Small, Medium, and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) across the nine provinces, to render the installation services. There had been several tenders issued to installers through Sentech. To date, 163 SABC and nine ETV analogue transmitters had been switched off and a further 39 SABC analogue transmitters were ready to be switched off. The Department carried out elaborate awareness campaigns to ensure people were well aware of what was happening and how users could be assisted. The campaigns included, among others, live reads on community radio stations across the country; public service announcements on SABC 1,2 and 3; on-the-ground or door-to-door campaigns and social media activations across all stakeholder platforms, which included digital advertisements and weekly messages.
The spectrum re-stacking process began as soon as the analogue switch-off in a province had been concluded. In provinces where the analogue had been switched off, the Department concluded re-arranging spectrum, or re-stacking, thereby giving way for the spectrum to be assigned for future technology usage.
Ms Jordan-Dyani said the Department had already commenced the installation of set-top boxes in Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape before the floods. The floods inflicted damage, and some households may have lost their set-top boxes. The Department was committed to replenishing these. The current data showed about 33 000 households affected, which would need replenishing. The Department still had adequate stock for this and supplying newly registered people. USAASA provided the financial muscle and was working with the Department to ensure successful replenishments.
Ms L Bebee (ANC, KZN) said the number of indigent households had initially been estimated to be 5 million; however, with the COVID-19 outbreak, which caused thousands of people to lose jobs, the number of indigent households would surely have increased. She asked if the Department had enough money to cater for the increased number of indigent households and why the set-top boxes were not available in retail stores for purchase by those who could afford them if everyone had to buy them from the Post Office.
Ms T Modise (ANC, North West) asked how many people across the nine provinces had been trained to install and repair set-top boxes, if the set-top boxes were locally produced, and how many jobs had been created through its production.
Mr Nhanha asked how confident the Department was that it would reach its target of 500 000 installed set-top boxes and, as a result, switch off all analogue broadcasting nationwide by 30 June 2022 in line with the High Court ruling. He asked how resistant the set-top boxes were to untimely electrical disruptions, which were prone to occur throughout the country because of load-shedding.
Ms W Ngwenya (ANC, Gauteng) said through the Department, the country was a party to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) treaty. The Committee approved one of the international agreements on ITU, per Section 321 of the Constitution, during a previous meeting. The Department missed the 2015 deadline for ITU's complete switch-over to digital broadcasting.
She asked if there were any penalties for the Department because of missing the 2015 deadline, if there were any pending cases or litigation from various organisations against the Department regarding the BDM programme which could affect the Department’s ability to reach the target and if the Department had a plan on how to assist people from rural areas and small cities with no post offices to register. She also asked what the lifespan was for the Project Steering Committee, which oversaw the plan of the BDM.
The Chairperson asked how much of the budgeted amount had already been spent assisting indigent households. Half of the population was in rural areas. The Chairperson asked if the Department could assure the Committee there would be no issues with the signal when the switch took place, especially considering indigent households in rural areas. On the question of public schools in rural communities, the Chairperson asked about the Department’s approach to assisting these schools with digital migration.
Ms Jordan-Dyani, answering a question about the increase in indigent households, said the Department noted five million indigent households in 2016. The competition in the market triggered many people to ‘self-migrate’ and acquire satellite dishes themselves. Some households self-migrated but could no longer pay the subscription fees and had been cut off. The Department said it would install set-top boxes for such indigent households. Some people registered in 2016 and relocated. These persons will be traced and assisted if need be. The Department raised awareness through different media platforms, mainly radio, about the BDM programme. For reasons mentioned earlier, the projected number of indigent households had decreased to about 2.5 million. A household which collectively earned R3 500 or less qualified for a set-top box. About 40 000 indigent households were newly registered between March and May of 2022 because of job losses.
The Department had enough set-top boxes in stock to cater for all the registered households. There were local suppliers, not producers, for the set-top boxes. The Department ensured it empowers the local SMMEs as part of its plan to stimulate the market to localise production of the boxes and other electronic gadgets.
Speaking on the electrical disruption resistance of the set-top boxes, the Department said the boxes came with a two-year warranty; one year from the manufacturer and one year topped up by USAASA. The boxes had a number on them that could be called for assistance should the box malfunction.
Speaking on availability in retail stores, the Department said its set-top boxes were available through the Post Office. ETV had its own devices, which cost about R600, and was available through retailers. It catered for the missing middle, which refers to the people who did not qualify for the Department’s set-top boxes and had not self-migrated.
On the number of installation personnel trained, the Department said there were a number of companies that received training across all nine provinces, accounting for the creation of about 14 800 jobs. Each installation company had a minimum of three people and some had up to ten people. The Department aimed to achieve an equal distribution of installers across each province. The Department remained confident it would meet its 30 June 2022 target as it continued to increase and call out the number of installers through Sentech. The Department set a target for installers to achieve between 50 and 100 installations in two days. If this target was met, it would open up the opportunity for the respective installer to get more installations to complete.
On the ITU treaty and penalties for the Department, the Department said it had presented on the ratification of the World Radio Conference the previous week. It was true South Africa had missed the 2015 deadline because of a number of litigation lawsuits, some of which dated back to 2010. When the Department wanted to add encryption, the Department was taken to court; when the Department wanted to do the distribution, some installers argued about the fee and took the Department to court. The Department won the March 2022 case in the High Court, and it was ruled that the Department could proceed with the BDM and was given the deadline of 30 June 2022. ETV took the matter to the Constitutional Court on review and the Department was awaiting the result of the review to determine the way forward. The numerous litigation suits against the Department had accounted for the delays.
The Department was committed to ensuring the migration was complete. This would open up more opportunities for SMMEs in the broadcasting ecosystem, from those doing electronic manufacturing to content production.
On the Department’s rural reach, the Department said its team had all gone out to farm areas and rural locations deemed inaccessible by conventional means of transportation. The Department made efforts to reach every single district and every municipality throughout the country. The Department created a free, zero-rated application for the areas with no post offices, so people could register.
Speaking about the lifespan of the Project Management Office (PMO), the Department said it would end on completion of the project. This was initially set to be September 2022, but it was then revised to the end of the current financial year, 31 March 2023.
On finances, the Department said it was still consolidating this and information would be sent to the Committee on how much the Department had spent, but the bulk of the project budget had gone to USAASA, which would be able to account for the expenditure. Sentech and the Post Office were part of the project. The Department would need financial statements from these entities before it could provide the Committee with information on the money spent.
On the public schools' programme, the Department aimed to ensure access to broadband connectivity through a project called SA Connect, which would ensure learning could take place remotely in times of disasters. The Department intended to connect 32 000 sites, including schools, clinics, and government sites, within three years. The schools in rural areas did not have a website, or if they had one, it was a dot-com, which was predominantly run by multinationals. The Department aimed to migrate the schools from the dot-com to dot-za, the domain name owned by the country. All the content on the school websites would then be zero-rated. Each learner would have the learner’s own email address, which would bear the school's name. The Department was also working on a laptop refurbishment project, which would enable each learner to have a laptop to take home for learning after school hours. The Department had already started with the zero-rating of educational websites.
Ms Mpete, answering on the missing middle, said the people who were in the missing middle were those who could not qualify for the Department’s set-top boxes. These people could also get Integrated Digital TV (IDTV), which was capable of accessing the network.
Ms Jordan-Dyani addressed the question of penalties and the international treaty the Department was a signatory to, saying there were no penalties. If there is any signal interference with South Africa’s neighbouring countries, South Africa would be asked to switch off its signals.
Mr Nhanha, following up on the issue of people who had self-migrated, asked if the Department thought about partnering with the other service providers to ensure that when a household was not able to pay its subscription or became indigent, the service provider would move the household to free network until such time the household would be able to get back on the subscription plan. This would ensure the Department did not duplicate the devices in the household, one from the respective service provider and one from the Department.
The Chairperson said Mr Nhanha was putting the Department in a difficult position because some service providers were hell-bent on opposing the Department’s programme.
Ms Jordan-Dyani said the free-to-air broadcasting currently taking place was supposed to stay in place if a household stopped paying its subscription. The Department was monitoring it together with its regulator. The commercial issue that existed was how many free-to-air channels would be allowed to be broadcast once the subscription stopped and if commercial channels such as SABC 1, 2, and 3 would be available on the free-to-air broadcasting. The Department was working on regulations on these issues.
The Chairperson said if the Department anticipated it would not meet its targets for any reason, it should not wait until the target deadline to inform the Committee. It should rather inform the Committee as soon as possible because communicating in advance would help sort out issues faster.
Committee minutes dated 25 May 2022
The Committee considered and adopted the minutes.
The meeting was adjourned.
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