LLOYD GEDYE AND GLYNNIS UNDERHILL - Jun 04 2010 06:00
Broadcasting sector players have lambasted communications director general Mamodupi Mohlala for her announcement this week that the European digital television technology DVB-T is likely to be abandoned.
Mohlala's announcement, reported in an exclusive interview she gave to technology news website Tech Central, came just a day after Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda assured Parliament that no decision had been taken yet to abandon the DVB-T standard.
The communications department left the broadcasting industry in an uproar in April by announcing that it intended considering the Japanese ISDB-T technology.
South Africa decided in 2006 to go with the European model, while Nyanda's digital broadcasting migration policy was gazetted in 2008. Local industry has invested millions of rands in developing set-top boxes and running trials of European technology.
Mohlala is reported as saying that the DVB-T standard is "problematic" and that a decision must be made between the newer European standard, DVB-T2, and ISDB-T.
However, industry insiders insisted that Mohlala's claims that DVB-T was "problematic" were "bullshit", arguing that the European and Japanese technologies were comparable.
Industry players argue that more than 120 countries have adopted DVB-T and more than 40 have implemented it so we would know if millions of TV viewers across the globe have problems and if indeed the technology was "problematic".
"They [the department] are opening the door for change and through that door they'll push ISDB-T," said one insider. "Someone is pushing ISDB-T in the department and it appears to be the DG."
"The DG and the minister aren't singing from the same hymn book," said another insider. "We appear to have a new era of policymaking by interview."
The department appears to have gone to ground, failing to respond to the Mail & Guardian's questions for two weeks.
Another source said that if Mohlala had her own way, she would move immediately to ISDB-T. "It's shocking," said the insider. "It looks like a foregone conclusion."
Industry sources argue that the Japanese technology has never been used in the 8MHz spectrum band which South Africa employs and that no chip-set or set-top boxes have been manufactured for the band. Both Japan and Brazil, the major countries that use ISDB-T, use the 6MHz band.
The implication is that the manufacture of the set-top boxes will not benefit from economies of scale and will be more expensive.
Mohlala led a departmental trip to Brazil to assess the Japanese technology. The M&G spoke to numerous sources familiar with the trip, who claimed that two Icasa councillors and two middle-management SABC staffers accompanied Mohlala, deputy director general Gift Buthelezi and other department officials.
Sources said that the SABC and Icasa representatives were far more sceptical about the ISDB-T technology than the department officials, who were won over.
They added that when the former pressed the Brazilians about the use of ISDB-T in the 8MHz spectrum band, the department officials became irritated by the line of questioning. "It was clear that there was fallout between the two groups," said a source.
The sources also said they had heard that the SABC and Icasa delegates were excluded from some meetings with Brazilian officials. "My sense is that the Japanese and Brazilians have been promising massive investment in South Africa," said one.
Earlier in the week industry players slammed Nyanda's defence of the Japanese technology before Parliament's communications committee on Tuesday, calling it "ludicrous". "It would seem that either the minister's advisers are completely confused about the technologies, or he is," said one.
Nyanda argued that Europe's DVBT technology was "obsolete" and had "limitations", adding that the issue of digital broadcasting technology was discussed at a SADC ministers' conference two weeks ago, where it was decided that a two-month investigation should determine what suited the region best.
"It's important that, as a region, we move together on adopting a standard," he said, adding that a task team was investigating digital broadcasting technology, including Japan's ISDB-T, and would report back to the Cabinet.
A small Japanese delegation was present at the briefing.
However, an industry insider said that at a Communications Regulators' Association of Southern Africa meeting in April, SADC neighbours were "horrified" that South Africa is punting the Japanese technology at such a late stage in the process.
Industry sources said that Namibia, Tanzania and Mauritius had all already launched the DVBT technology and would be severely prejudiced by a contrary decision so late in the day.
They also said that the two technologies had very similar capabilities, and that Europe's DVB-T was not obsolete. In addition, there was no rush to replace DVB-T networks with second-generation DVB-T2 networks in Europe.
Local industrialists argued strongly that if the department really wanted to consider a more advanced technology, it should look at DVB-T2. This was "leaps and bounds" ahead of both other options, allowing for double the number of channels.
They said that DVB-T2 set-top boxes launched in the UK in January this year had fallen in price from $300 (R2 290) to $130 (R992) and were already cheaper than their Japanese counterparts.
They also insisted that changing the technology standard would not delay digital migration by a few months, as claimed, but by between three and five years.
Last week the M&G reported that questions have been raised about the role that former ambassador to Japan and current SABC chairperson Ben Ngubane has played in lobbying for the adoption of the Japanese technology.
The M&G reported on a meeting between Ngubane and a Japanese delegation at which the benefits of the ISDB-T technology were presented to him. Sources told the M&G that two weeks after this encounter Ngubane set up a meeting between SABC chief executive Solly Mokoetle and the Japanese. Ngubane has denied facilitating this meeting, and that he has lobbied for the Japanese offering.