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DIGITAL MIGRATION SAGA ALL BOXED UP

Most countries need to switch off their analogue signals and replace them with digital signals by 2015, by agreement with the International Telecommunications Union. In SA, existing television viewers will need to buy set-top boxes for approximately R700 to decode the digital signal, so that they can continue to watch television on their existing analogue sets.

If they do not, they will be unable to access television from the existing free-to-air broadcasters (the SABC, e.tv and five community stations) or any new stations.

The process is meant to benefit users as it can lead to more viewer choices. This is because many more digital channels with higher picture quality can be multiplexed on a channel previously occupied by an analogue broadcaster.

The freed-up spectrum is much-coveted and is particularly ideal for mobile broadband services, especially in rural areas. Governments stand to benefit financially from the release of this spectrum, while users should be able to access additional services.

Why are South Africans largely in the dark about these developments? The policy and regulatory machinations on the migration process are taking place in elite governmental and regulatory forums. These processes are open to the public, but the ways in which they are conducted do not lend themselves to citizen participation.

Furthermore, there is very little civil society involvement, with the notable and important exceptions of SoS – Save Public Broadcasting, Media Monitoring Africa and independent community television stations.

The government has promised a consumer awareness programme on the need to migrate – a task delegated to a multi-stakeholder advisory body called the Digital Dzonga – but this programme has not started.

By the time it does, the decisions that really matter will have been made for them by the “experts”. Their only role will be to pay for set-top boxes.

DStv and Top TV subscribers will be unaffected, as they already receive a digitised signal. Therefore, the poor will be more heavily affected by the process. The migration process is running into trouble, partly because the Treasury refuses to grant sufficient funds to complete the process.

Without this funding, subsidies will remain inadequate and frustrate local content production.

SA viewers have a strong appetite for local television content, but are frustrated with the continued dominance of English and Afrikaans. Pressure is needed to unlock the resources necessary to ensure that digital migration addresses these needs.

Whether these needs will be met depends largely on the balance of forces in the migration process. Policy-making on digital migration is notoriously susceptible to industry capture, which can lead to a process driven by producer interests rather than user interests.

The risk of industry capture is that a handful of media conglomerates can land up controlling the airwaves, filling them with commercially driven programming that does not address the informational and educational needs of society. Because of the fixed costs involved, digital migration can lead to more channels with fewer owners.

In a study of digital migration in Canada and the US, Canadian academic Gregory Taylor argued that Canada’s process was largely market-driven, to the point where industry and the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission effectively co-regulated the process.

Civil society and academic scrutiny was practically absent, leading to key public interest elements being marginalised.

Yet, given the highly deregulated nature of its media market, US policymakers and the regulator have been forced to take public interest considerations more seriously than in Canada. Civil society engaged the process proactively to prevent a full-scale spectrum heist by corporate interests.

In the US, on the other hand, civil society advocacy led in part to a Federal Communications Commission decision to approve a portion of white spaces for unlicensed use, creating space for new broadband projects as barriers to entry were reduced.

Canada rigidly pursued the provision of high-definition television (HDTV) rather than standard definition, chewing up lots of spectrum, and reduced the number of channels. This undermined one of the touted benefits of migration, increasing viewer choice, and penalised viewers who could not afford HDTV sets.

In SA, the process, started in 2005, has been state-led as the state assumed responsibility for securing public interest objectives for its citizens. To save costs, the government decided on a short dual illumination period – broadcasting both analogue and digital signals – to allow broadcasters to phase in the digital signal and to give viewers time to buy set-top boxes.

The government also decided on an ambitious strategy of manufacturing the boxes locally, rather than bringing in cheap imports; 70 percent of the costs would be subsidised to make them affordable for poorer households.

But after an impressive start, the process has become shambolic. The government has repeatedly shifted the deadline for analogue switch-off, most recently deciding not to set another deadline as it will probably not be met again owing to funding shortages. So far, box subsidies have been budgeted for just 6 percent of households.

Delays work to the incumbent broadcasters’ advantage, allowing them to secure content deals that may create barriers to entry for new broadcasters. But the incumbent broadcasters are also squabbling among themselves about the carving up of the multiplexes set aside for the dual illumination period.

Initially, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) decided to reserve the multiplexes for the incumbent broadcasters, giving them incentive to migrate by protecting them from competition. However, this locked out new entrants for the dual illumination period, which Icasa considered necessary to provide incumbent broadcasters with incentive to migrate at their own expense.

Since then, SA adopted a more efficient transmission standard, prompting Icasa to propose a reduction of e.tv’s and M-Net’s allocation of the multiplexes, to free up capacity for new entrants. A portion of the first multiplex was also reserved for community television.

While the desire to consider new entrants is welcome, even the revised allocations give M-Net undue access to the spectrum, which will reinforce its owner Naspers’s position as SA’s media behemoth. Opening the door to HDTV during dual illumination suggests a further capitulation to industry interests and its desire to capture high-income markets.

Incumbent broadcasters have expressed reservations that introducing competition now will stretch the already stretched advertising cake further, threatening their sustainability. If Icasa accepts their argument, viewers are unlikely to see new entrants before 2017.

Much depends on the Communications Department’s ability to secure funding from the Treasury to free the SABC from advertising, and to fund its content development. If it does, then more adspend becomes available for commercial broadcasters and resources will be unlocked for the production of local content.

But there is no sign yet of the Treasury relenting on its decision to underfund the process.

This will result in costs being shifted to viewers, who have had practically no voice in the process.

Also, with little money available for local content, they may end up receiving little in return for their financial outlay, apart from more channels of wrestling, American sitcoms and repeats. The likely result is a slow take-up of set-top boxes, and protests as the switch-off deadline looms.

Underfunding will also lead to free-to-air television suffering in the long term, to the advantage of the more lightly regulated subscription television sector. By default, if not design, Naspers is likely to be the biggest winner, as the company has spread its bets across several platforms and has a bigger content pool to leverage than its free-to-air competitors.

If this happens, the process will simply reproduce, and even reinforce, existing property relations, leading to the kind of industry capture of the process apparent in Canada. In fact, there are strong signs of regulatory decision-making heading in this direction already.

South Africans have very few common spaces for national debate, and digitisation is fragmenting these common spaces even more. As deeply flawed as free-to-air television is, it does offer some spaces. Unless these spaces are protected and expanded, SA risks becoming a society that is unable to see itself: a dangerous prospect indeed.

Source: The Mercury – Jane Duncan