Comms ministry lifts lid on set-top box installation numbers

As at the end of June, the number of installed set-top boxes (STBs) as part of the country’s digital migration project stood at just over the 500 000 mark.

This is in stark contrast to the 4.6 million estimated beneficiary households that qualify for the government subsidy.

This information came to light in a Parliamentary response to Democratic Alliance MP Zakhele Mbhele’s question about the status of the Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme.

In a written response to Mbhele’s question, minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams reveals her department has informed her that 533 056 installations had been completed as at June, noting installations are conducted in a sequential provincial schedule.

The Free State is the province with the most installations, with 213 902 set-top box decoders installed, to date. It is followed by the North West, which has conducted 85 224 installations.

Other notable provinces include Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, which are noted to have 44 356, 77 639 and 49 288 total installations, respectively.

Ndabeni-Abrahams’s ministry, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), is custodian of the BDM programme, while its entities Sentech and the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA are charged with overseeing its rollout.

The programme has been identified as one of the key projects to improve the lives of South African citizens. The state is of the view that successful migration will empower it to bridge the digital divide, increase the competitiveness of the economy, create jobs and build social cohesion.

Furthermore, the switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT) will make radio frequency spectrum, which is currently occupied by analogue services, available for mobile broadband and broadcasting services.

However, the multibillion-rand project has faced numerous hiccups and controversies over the years.

Presenting the DCDT’s annual performance plans for the 2021/2022 financial year to Parliament in May, the department’s acting director-general said the progress of the STB installation was a “drop in the ocean” considering the households yet to be migrated.

Government has committed to subsidise digital migration resources for households that depend on social grants and those with an income of less than R3 200. These resources include STBs, which are required to convert digital broadcasting signals on analogue TV sets, as well as integrated digital TVs that have the DTT decoding capability built-in.

In her response, Ndabeni-Abrahams indicates the total budget allocated, so far, for decoder subsidy, excluding goods and services, is approximately R1.2 billion.

“The anticipated combined national decoder subsidy shortfall is approximately R563 million for the vouchers. An additional amount will be required for the voucher system which still needs to be determined.”

Following president Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address earlier this year, the DCDT said it would begin a phased analogue switch-off (ASO) in the Free State’s Ladybrand and surrounding towns.

At the time, the department explained the switch-off in each province will be systematic and in phases, moving from one analogue transmitter coverage area to the other, until all district municipalities within the province are completed.

Responding to the question about monthly digital migration targets and when the ministry envisages completing the BDM project, the minister says: “The monthly household migration targets are not used as a yardstick.”

Instead, a determination is made to conclude a critical mass threshold of 70% household migration within a target transmitter coverage area, which covers a number of predetermined towns or villages, she explains.

“The outcome is then applied to determine the analogue transmitter switch-off in the provincial sequence. The ASO is carried out in a provincial transmitter sequence in this controlled manner until the final transmitter within the province is switched off.

“The ASO process is carried out in an overlapping manner between provinces. The schedule is subject to continuous revision to optimise where practical, taking external circumstances and internal implementation variables into account.”

In terms of the preliminary migration schedule for each province, the table below depicts the process.

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