Court’s Win-Win Dilemma: Delay Cheaper Data or Cut TV Signal for South Africa’s Poorest

Constitutional Court of South Africa I decided cancel the government’s plans to end old-style analogue television broadcasting at the end of June.

The decision upholds a right to information that poor South Africans would be denied as the government has been slow to deploy the devices they need to access the new digital signal.

But the decision will further delay the transition to digital broadcasting and leave South Africa longer to grapple with a shortage of urgently needed bandwidth. Migration will free up space in the frequency spectrum for mobile data and other purposes.

The government has had many years to ensure a smooth transition and ensure poor households continue to have access to television services. But it failed.

The last minute rush and hasty deadlines could not hide the fact that perhaps a third of South Africans would have been left without access.

Courts decree, broadcast just two days before the deadline, said the government has not set how many people will be left without access to television when the analog signal is cut off. Thus, this decision was unconstitutional and was overturned.

The legal challenge against the June 30 analog TV shutdown date comes from private private broadcaster E-tv, backed by civil society groups SOS Support Public Broadcasting and Media Monitoring Africa.

They argued that the date was too early, as too many people still did not have access to the new digital signal.

The process of digital migration has dragged on for many years: South Africa first planned to turn off analogue communications in 2011, well ahead of the 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union.

But these and subsequent deadlines and ministers have come and gone as the process has been marked by allegations of corruption, operational delays and allegations that South African satellite TV giant Multichoice tried to shape the process according to his agenda.

Khumbozu Ntsaveni
Minister of Communications Khumbozu Ntsawheni sits next to President Cyril Ramaphosa

Administration President Cyril Ramaphosa identified changing the digital landscape as a policy priority. The government is making every effort to complete the digital migration – transferring analogue television broadcasting to a new digital platform – “digital terrestrial television”.

The current Minister of Communications, Khumbudzo Ntsaveni, recently spoke out against the opponents of digital migrationstating that the country needed

bridge the digital divide, especially in a continent where most people remain disconnected and without access to technology. We cannot afford to be left behind, regardless of any other goals. Our people will be connected.

Need for change

However, after so many years of delay, the picture has changed dramatically.

Digital terrestrial television has largely given way to internet services like Netflix and satellite services like DStv, at least for the middle class.

Poorer South Africans are still heavily dependent on the analogue system.

About 36% of the country’s population could remain in “television darkness“At the end of June, if the disconnection had occurred, according to submissions to the Constitutional Court.

According to Justine Limpitlow and Azola Dayil of SOS Support Public Broadcast Coalition:

That 36% are the most marginalized and have the least access should be of particular concern to the government.

At the heart of the problem lies the fact that the frequency spectrum has limited space for the transmission of radio, television, mobile phone and other signals.

New digital technologies are dramatically increasing capacity, and the rapidly growing demand for digital services has created a huge demand for more spectrum to be freed up.

Lack of bandwidth was identified as a major impediment to reducing the cost of data and thus promoting economic growth.

However, traditional broadcasters get in the way. They are occupying frequency bands between 700 MHz and 800 MHz and need to be digitized to free those bands for mobile data.

The government has made some progress on the other end of the digital migration challenge. After long and difficult legal battles, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa successfully frequency space auction in March of this year, having realized 14.4 billion rands (about 900 million US dollars) from six mobile companies.

The amount far exceeded expectations and reflects how valuable the frequency space is. The Treasury will also be pleased with the generous income.


The problem is that the property has been sold and the old tenants still own it and are fighting attempts to evict them.

Some transmitters in the five provinces have already turned offbut blackouts in the country’s most densely populated areas are yet to come.

The government is releasing free set-top boxes that will allow people with old TVs to receive the new digital signal. But the process is far behind schedule.

By the end of last year, set-top boxes had been released to just over 500,000 households. government data submitted to courtout of a qualifying total of 3.75 million.

ministry claimed that most of those left behind did not register for support. The minister said in court documents that the government can only take responsibility for those who did. But the Constitutional Court said that this is not enough, and the registration period until October 31, 2021 is irrational.

Although E-tv highlighted the loss of millions of information rights for the purposes of its legal action, the broadcaster also fears a massive loss of business. With such a huge drop in audience, advertisers will simply go elsewhere.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the national public broadcaster, will also lose money and initially expressed concern about too fast analog shutdown.

He later apologized to the minister for the alleged breach of protocol, following overt pressure from the ministry. However, the application was not withdrawn and remained on the corporation’s website.

A matter of time and rights

All parties agree that the analog shutdown must occur – it’s only a matter of time.

Although this process has been going on for many years, progress has been painfully slow, and the need for more bandwidth has grown exponentially.

It seems less than fair to expect that millions of the most disadvantaged will be left without television due to government difficulties in supplying – in this case, set-top boxes. After all, information is a basic right and necessity.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling means that until the government rolls out set-top boxes to those who need them, mobile data will remain scarce and expensive.

Franz Kruegeradjunct professor of journalism and director of Wits Radio Academy, University of the Witwatersrand

This article has been reprinted from Talk under a Creative Commons license. Read original article.

Now read: Mobile operators plan to phase out spectrum use for emergencies