The Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, has called on broadcaster E-tv to desist from further attempts to delay South Africa’s migration to digital TV.

Her comments came in a statement welcoming the Pretoria High Court’s ruling that postponed the country’s analogue switch-off date from 31 March 2022 to 30 June 2022.

The order is intended to provide the government with more time to complete the installation of set-top boxes (STB) for indigent households who had registered timeously and were entitled to receive their STBs before the analogue switch off.

The ruling was made as part of a court case launched by E-tv, which wanted the analogue switch-off timeline to be pushed back by between 15 and 18 months.

The broadcaster had argued that switching off all analogue transmitters by the end of March would leave many households without a digital decoder or TV in the dark.

But E-tv’s case was dismissed with costs, while it was also ordered to pay the full costs of Vodacom and Icasa’s legal counsel, and 50% of the department’s legal fees.

The court found that the government had done enough, within its powers, to help get subsidised set-top boxes into qualifying households.

“It is in the interest of the country, the economy, and for South Africans in general that the digital migration be finalised,” the ruling stated.

The minister said she was elated at the dismissal of E-tv’s case and urged the broadcaster to accept the ruling.

She also urged the SaveFreeToAirTV Coalition, a collective opposing the analogue switch-off this year, to redirect its energies towards mobilising the qualifying households to register for government assistance.

The department added it remained committed to ensuring that the 507,251 households who registered for STBs by the 31 October 2021 deadline are connected by no later than 30 June 2022.

The date coincides with the date Icasa determined and announced as the end of the transition period for the broadcasting services and signal distributors to vacate the 800MHz – 700MHz band.

“In addition, the Department will ensure that 260,868 households that registered between 31 October 2021 and 10 March 2022 are connected to their STBs by no later than 30 September 2022.”

The department also pointed out several of its arguments that were affirmed by the court’s ruling, including:

  • Rights are reciprocal, and for every right, there is an obligation. This affirmed minister Ntshavheni’s publicly-expressed view that the government had a responsibility to assist only households that register and fulfil requirements for government assistance.
  • The government’s responsibility to assist households still watching TV via analogue transmitters was limited to those households that met the government-set criteria and registered to receive help.
  • It would be unreasonable to allow an unknown variable — the unregistered households — to hold up a process that would eventually benefit all citizens and prevent the government from meeting its international obligations.
  • Government had done enough within its powers to help qualifying households realise their right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to receive information.
  • It was nearly impossible for the government to establish who else qualified for an STB without the affected households registering. Not all indigent households owned an analogue TV, and not all families who owned an analogue TV were impoverished.
  • E-tv’s disagreement with the process was based on serving its commercial interests. It does not require further consultation opportunities. Furthermore, E-tv could not dispute its inclusion in several satisfactory consultations over many years regarding the process of digital migration.
  • The formulation of policy is an executive competency. The duty to consult will only arise in circumstances where it would be irrational to take a decision without further input from industry experts.
  • Nothing prevented the minister from determining and announcing the original switch-off date as 31 March 2022.

Editor@tech-talk.co.za