Digital TV – what it means for you T
he June 17 deadline for all African countries to switch their television broadcasts from analogue to digital passed this week, and South Africa has still not launched digital TV.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. The switch from analogue – how you receive your TV signal now, using an aerial – to digital – where a decoder (and possibly a new aerial) will be needed – is expected to happen in South Africa in the next two years.
When it finally does happen, digital terrestrial television (DTT) means more channels for consumers to watch.
They will have better picture and sound quality, as well as value-added services such as an electronic TV guide, multiple language tracks and subtitles.
This can only be good news for our 12.8 million TV households, especially the 62% that rely on freeto-air broadcasters – the SABC’s three channels, e.tv and seven community-TV broadcasters.
It’s the households relying on these channels that are most directly affected by DTT.
They will need to get a decoder (called a set-top box) and perhaps a new aerial to receive these channels in the future.
So what is digital TV?
In 2006 the International Telecommunication Union held a conference where it was decided that all countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East would migrate their TV broadcasting to digital by June 17 this year.
The main aim was to reduce the amount of spectrum that was being used for broadcasting TV so that it could be freed up for other uses, such as cellphone and internet services.
Spectrum is the radio frequency or “airwaves” used to transmit signals. It is a valuable and finite resource, so needs to be used efficiently.
There are two important dates when a country switches from analogue to digital.
The first is when digital TV signals are launched and the second is when the analogue signals are switched off.
Between these stages is a transition period (called dual illumination) during which digital and analogue signals run side by side.
This is the window available to switch all analogue-TV households into digital-TV households.
How do you go digital?
To get digital TV you’ll have to install a new decoder and, for many, a new kind of aerial.
Some existing aerials will work, some won’t – you will have to find out if yours does.
The new decoder allows analogue TV sets to receive digital TV channels.
For early adopters, there is also the option of buying a new integrated digital TV with the DTT decoder built in.
Those South Africans who already receive their TV signals via satellite services such as DStv, StarSat and OpenView HD are already digital compliant.
They will not lose their TV services when the switchover happens, but may not have the full range of new channels on offer from other broadcasters.
It’s still not clear what the new decoder will cost – it could be a once-off payment of between R500 and R800.
When a TV channel is broadcast digitally, it is allocated to what it is known as a multiplex, which is a vast band of spectrum used to transmit various signals across it, such as a number of TV channels.
With digital TV, these channels can be compressed and packaged together, so you can broadcast many channels in the same amount of space that would be taken by just one analogue channel.
South Africa has three multiplexes available for digital TV.
Communications regulator Icasa expects each of these multiplexes to have a maximum capacity of 20 standarddefinition TV channels or eight high-definition channels.
This means DTT will bring us the potential for 60 new regular free-to-air TV channels or 24 high-definition ones – compared with the four we have now.
With digital TV, the SABC’s multiplex can offer up to 17 standard-definition channels or six high-definition ones – plus three community TV channels in standard definition. On its multiplex, e.tv has the capacity for 11 standarddefinition channels or four high-definition ones. M-Net has the capacity for nine standard-definition channels and three high-definition ones. But that’s just what’s available, it doesn’t mean all those channels will be used.
If broadcasters don’t use the extra capacity on their multiplexes, they will lose it after three years and other broadcasters will be offered the space for their content.
In August last year, Icasa released the promotion of diversity and competition on digital terrestrial television regulations – rules that will allow the regulator to license new players in the free-to-air and paid-for TV services on the DTT platform.
What does missing this week’s deadline mean?
By the country not migrating to digital by June 17, South African television viewers – especially those who live near our borders – will not be protected from interference from TV signals broadcast by neighbouring countries. This might disrupt their ability to watch TV. It also means viewers in neighbouring countries can easily pirate our TV signals.
Icasa and the department of communications, with Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, have been visiting neighbouring countries Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland to speak to regulators to lessen the risk of any signal interference that may occur.
In her recent budget vote speech in Parliament, Muthambi said: “We have prioritised South African communities alongside the borderline areas for the distribution of set-top boxes to mitigate any potential frequency-spectrum interferences.”
Mauritius, Malawi, Rwanda, Namibia and Tanzania have already completed their digital-migration process.
DTT might be delayed here at home – but it is coming, that’s for sure.
When it does, you need to figure out if you qualify for a free decoder, or start investigating what options you have in terms of buying one.
Because, in a few years, the analogue TV signal will be turned off for good and we will be living in a digital TV world. This means more channels and better sound and picture quality than ever before. This series on digital terrestrial television is produced in
partnership with the SOS Coalition