Digital migration in disarray: E.tv heads to court over minister’s deadline


eMedia Holdings, the parent of e.tv and Openview, has filed papers in the high court to stop communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni from declaring a March 2022 date for analogue television switch-off, saying such a tight deadline is simply not feasible.

The free-to-air broadcaster filed papers last month — before Ntshavheni this week reaffirmed an earlier commitment by President Cyril Ramaphosa to complete the switch-off by no later than March 2022. The filing followed evidence, in the form of a draft order, that the minister would set this as the date to complete the broadcasting digital migration project.

Ntshavheni this week published a schedule for digital migration, according to which all nine provinces will have terminated analogue broadcasts by 31 January 2022, starting with the Free State later this month.

But eMedia CEO Khalik Sherrif, speaking to TechCentral in an exclusive interview on Wednesday, said the shortest possible time in which the project can be completed without causing serious harm to the broadcasting sector is 15 months.

Anything less, he said, would harm e.tv and other broadcasters and would flout provisions of the constitution dealing with the broadcasting sector.

“It can’t be done in the time they (government) propose. It absolutely cannot be done,” Sherrif told TechCentral.

eMedia is now turning to the courts for relief, filing a supplementary notice of motion in the interrelated legal case brought by Telkom (which eMedia has since joined) that sought successfully to stop communications regulator Icasa from proceeding with a spectrum auction under a previously published invitation to operators to apply.

Inderdict

The company is now seeking alternative relief after it became clear that a settlement wouldn’t be reached over the auction and digital migration. It has also warned it could seek an interdict if needed to try to bring the minister’s plans to a halt.

Specifically, eMedia is seeking a declarator that the minister cannot declare the date for analogue switch-off until certain conditions are met, among them that there is a sufficient number of digital set-top boxes in the country, that people will have access to those set-top boxes, and that an adequately staffed call centre will be established to assist people with the switchover.

There is currently a shortage set-top boxes worldwide due to the global chip shortage, meaning even commercial satellite operators, including Openview, will struggle to meet demand if analogue switch-off is not delayed beyond the March 2022 deadline, Sherrif said.

In the supplementary affidavit filed with the court, which TechCentral has seen, eMedia Investments chief operating officer Antonio Lee said:

Very recent events have raised alarm bells regarding the process that the minister and Icasa intend to follow to achieve analogue switch-off…
The recent statements by Icasa and the minister … are a matter of considerable concern to e.tv as the so-called ‘fast-tracking’ of digital migration at a ‘rapid speed’ — without the preconditions for a lawful digital migration process having been achieved — fundamentally threatens e.tv’s ability to continue to reach the majority of its audience.
It also threatens the rights of the public to have access to free-to-air television from either the SABC or e.tv – both of which use analogue spectrum for the purposes of broadcasting their programmes. It further threatens the rule of law, which values public and proper consultation as a constitutional commitment.
It appears that the minister and Icasa are approaching the spectrum auction with a single-minded focus, which is to clear the relevant spectrum at the cost of the broadcasters and the public.
Around 23.5 million viewers in South Africa watch e.tv on average each month. This equates to approximately 6.7 million households in which e.tv is viewed. Given than 58% of these households are dependent on the analogue broadcasting of e.tv’s news and programming, an analogue switch-off would deny some 13.6 million viewers in South Africa the opportunity to view the broadcasting of the only source of free-to-air independent television news and information programming.
Many of these viewers are among those who do not have sufficient economic resources to afford digital subscription platforms such as DStv, and who cannot afford to purchase sufficient data to stream news and programming via mobile networks.
To comply with constitutional obligations and public promises, before digital migration can be completed, the government must ensure that these 13.6 million viewers are provided with the necessary equipment, be it set-top boxes and/or reception devices, to continue to receive these broadcasts. E.tv has calculated that an additional 3.9 million set-top boxes are still to be provided to its viewers to achieve this purpose.

A problem, eMedia said, is that only 800 000 set-top boxes remain warehoused by the Post Office for distribution and government has said it has no plan to order any more.

Specifically, eMedia wants the court to:

  • Provide a declaratory order that the digital migration process may not be completed unless and until the minister and Icasa have undertaken a process of engagement and ensured that those who are reliant on analogue TV have been provided with the appropriate means to continue to access e.tv’s services on a free-to-air basis.
  • Ensure that adequately resourced call centres are operational to process viewer queries sufficiently and effectively.
  • Ensure an effective viewer information campaign has been conducted.
  • Ensure that sufficient resources have been allocated to Sentech, the state-owned broadcasting signal distributor, to “action the switch-off” of transmitters.

eMedia, Sherrif said, is concerned that government is “rushing” the digital migration project without considering the implications for broadcasters like e.tv. Without the infrastructure in place, including digital set-top boxes in indigent households, the impact on free-to-air broadcasters could be severe, he said.

“We are not opposed as eMedia to analogue switch-off. We are just opposed to a hurried approach to doing it; to a nonsensical approach to doing it. We have spent months coming up with a plan that will work for the country, but no one wants to listen to it,” he said. This plan, which TechCentral has seen, would ensure the telecoms operators could get access to spectrum above 692MHz — the digital dividend — as quickly as possible while also protecting the broadcasters.

According to Sherrif, there are still 5.6 million households in South Africa reliant on analogue broadcasts. “How are you going to convert them in five months? Is it possible? There is a danger of free-to-air going dark and free-to-air being impacted horribly.”

A realistic deadline, Sherrif said, is 18 months from now to complete the project, including analogue switch-off and the “digital restacking” that has to take place to get broadcasters out of the digital dividend that will be sold to telecommunications operators through Icasa’s auction, which is pencilled in for next year. At a push, this time period could be reduced to 15 months, but this would require working flat-out to meet the deadline, he said. – © 2021 NewsCentral Media



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