On World Aids Day, ICASA held its second day of hearings into Digital Terrestrial Television, and digital migration regulations.  When I first heard about them I had no idea what they were all about, whether they were important or what the issues were.  Luckily as a member of the Save our SABC Coalition (see here) I attended a session where former ICASA councillor Libby Lloyd gave a presentation on Digital Migration.  It was brilliant and I highly recommend you have a look at it as it explains the key concepts in very accessible way. (Libby has kindly given us permission to put it on our website.)  Don’t know your Set top Box from your Dual Illumination?  Check out the presentation.  Libby’s presentation was so effective that it resulted in both the SOS Coalition and MMA making submissions to ICASA on the Digital Migration Regulations.

So what are the implications of the regulations? The regulations raise a host of issues, from the fact that they are the precursor for all of us having to get a set top box in the next few years, to us never being able to look at broadcast policy in the same way ever again.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to get a set top box yet,  in fact you cant even if you do still have some money to spend, but you will have to get one in the next few years because the plan is to switch off the analogue signal in 2011.  What does that mean? In simple terms it means without a set top box you wont be able to watch TV.  For the mean time though these regulations are there to allocate licences to existing terrestrial broadcasters, like SABC and e.tv.  I have specifically excluded M-net for while they are mentioned in the regulations I don’t think they should also have digital terrestrial licence in ADDITON to their existing satellite licence.  In addition they are meant to set out the basis on which the licences should be granted as well as regulate the period of dual illumination –i.e. the period where broadcasters will broadcast in both analogue and digital.  The regulations also deal with technical matters.  So why should you be interested? 3 main reasons.

1. The nature of digital broadcasting means that we will always need to think about a multi channel environment, because what we can currently only do with one analogue signal with digital you can add additional information, like subtitles, or even another channel. There is also the possibility that we will be able to utilise the services for e-governance, so accessing forms etc for Home Affairs, as well as submit them.  The nature of a multi channel environment, poses significant challenges for our current public broadcaster, not only in terms of its structure but also how we conceive of a public broadcaster.  If all people will be able to have access to digital television (as is planned) should it be only the SABC that is producing public service programming or should others be doing so as well and if they do shouldn’t they also get public funds to do it?  In addition to the benefits of better quality video and audio the digital environment also opens up the potential for greater diversity in programming.  It will be possible that rather than saying broadcaster need to have 20% children’s programming in their schedules as some of their licences conditions currently state, that they could have an entire channel devoted to children’s programming.  A similar situation arises with Educational programming.  The key then is to ensure that diversity and matters of public interest are entrenched and clearly regulated.  One of MMA’s and the SOS coalitions core concerns about the current regulations is that issues of diversity and public interest are not sufficiently entrenched in the regulations.  (see the issue regarding the Public means test in our submission)

2. The second reason you should be interested in these regulations is that digital migration is going to cost a truck load of money.  It will cost huge amounts to set up the infrastructure , subsidise set top boxes for poor people (see some of these estimates in the presentation) let alone broadcast across tow different channels.  In addition to this there are issues of costs of programming.  For the public broadcaster, the ANC’s Polokwane resolutions clearly envisage that 60% of the SABC’s funding will be publicly funded.  (see here).  I do not think it has been decided where this money will come form or how it will be managed which is its own blog subject.  I am also not sure if the costs of digital migration were factored into the Polokwanne Resolutions as they will be considerable.  It is also unclear where the remaining 40% will come from.  It seems fair to assume it will be largely advertising.  Given the current financial climate and that when economies get depressed Advertising is one of the first areas to suffer it seems that one of the biggest hurdles towards digital migration is going to be where the money comes from.

3. At the hearings MMA and SOS were confronted by the usual suspects, the big broadcasters, SABC, E.tv, Mulitchoice and even some of the new ones.  Then there were the technical people, Sentech and Orbicom as well as a few other industry bodies like SASFED (South African Screenwriters Federation).  Most of these bodies have big legal teams to represent them, and this seems only reasonable given the amount of money they would be investing.  Most disturbing however was that as before, MMA was one of only a handful of civil society bodies making a submission.  ICASA is mandated to regulate in the public interest and the hearings were open to all members of the public but civil society voices were far outnumbered by industry big wigs.  It was positive indeed that SOS made a submission as it represents a significant group of civil society organisations, and FXI is also usually one of the key bodies to represent civil society. So what’s my point?  Point is that ICASA regulates an area that has a huge impact on peoples daily lives – communication and information dissemination, and while it is mandated to regulate in the public interest, there is often little public participation in the public processes that occur.  If hearings and submissions are dominated by Industry big wigs, it makes it harder for the regulator to regulate in the public interest.  I should note that of course the views of the big wigs must be incorporated and that their interest and the public interest may coincide, but as a rule the purpose of many of the Industry players is not to operate in the public interest but for profit.  So you should be interested because everything you view through your set top box will be affected by these and future regulations and if you want quality programming, programming to meet the diverse needs of all who live in South Africa, if you want top quality educational, children’s documentary and entertainment programming you need to get involved in the ICASA processes, or at least support MMA and others in their work.

On a slightly different note: We have been quite overwhelmed by the number of messages of support that we have received both for our name change and our new website.  For the website itself we have a brilliant team at Flow Communications.  Thank you all for your support.