YESTERDAY was a historic day for South African TV , which will begin to make the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting.

The total cost of digital migration is expected to reach R3bn, with the government footing much of the infrastructure bill. However, broadcasters will have to pay for new content.

Digital broadcasting is a requirement for hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but this higher-quality feed will be available only to international viewers.

One of the main challenges the government faces is the difficulty of distributing set-top boxes to millions of households.

These are necessary to convert the digital TV signal for analogue TVs and most of such households are in rural and deep rural areas. Many will find the boxes unaffordable.

Adding to the immensity of the task is the tight deadline SA has set itself, with just three years until the analogue TV signal is switched off in November 2011.

Yesterday’s launch was the start of a digital signal trial, with the signal available only in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. Digital coverage will be phased in over the rest of the country.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), of which SA is a member, has decided that all countries must switch to digital signals by 2015, after which it will no longer support the analogue signals, which most countries still use . The digital trials also mean that SABC News International, which was launched last year, will finally receive a broadcast platform within SA .

Until now it has been available only on the late-night slot on SABC2 and on Sentech’s Vivid platform, which uses free satellite technology but has an extremely limited scope. The digital signal can be viewed only by consumers with set-top boxes, of which about 3000 are being distributed by broadcasters for the trial phase, says Joe Makhafola, spokesman for Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri.

Little detail is available on distribution targets, as Makhafola referred questions to the broadcasters — the SABC, and M-Net.

A briefing due to be held by all three broadcasters yesterday was cancelled in order to accommodate a symbolic commemoration of the switch-on by Matsepe-Casaburri.

The full commercial launch of digital terrestrial TV would only happen in 16 months’ time, Marcel Golding, CEO of Hosken Consolidated Investments, which owns, told Parliament this year.

This is because of delays in finalising the policy.

SA is the first African country to begin digital migration, ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Touré said yesterday.

Touré was speaking at the World Telecommunication Standardisation Assembly, held yesterday in Kempton Park. It was attended by 98 member countries of the ITU.

Kenya has committed to digital migration by 2012, and other African countries are establishing digital migration schedules.

Source: Business Day – Jocelyn Newmarch