South Africa’s state-owned Sentech will at midnight on Monday move TV broadcasters out of the “digital dividend” frequency bands, freeing them up for telecommunications – and those still watching terrestrial television are directly impacted.
In June, communications minister Mondli Gungubele set a deadline for all free-to-air broadcasters to vacate frequencies above 694MHz by end-July. These are the frequency bands allocated to mobile operators during last year’s auction of spectrum by communications regulator Icasa. The operators haven’t been able to utilise the spectrum fully as it is still being used for analogue TV.
Those broadcasters occupying the bands above 694MHz must move to lower frequencies by that date, the minister said. All remaining analogue broadcasting services – utilised by e.tv and the SABC – should temporarily be accommodated in lower frequencies, meaning South Africans still reliant on analogue broadcasts will need to retune their TVs to continue receiving some channels from 1 August.
All digital broadcasting services operating above 694MHz must also be returned to operate on frequencies below 694MHz in order to clear broadcasting services from the 694-862MHz frequency bands, the minister said.
Gungubele then wants all analogue signals switched off – ending a period of “dual illumination” of analogue and digital signals – by no later than 31 December 2024. That gives the broadcasters and the government more time to convert the millions of households still reliant on analogue broadcasts to digital services.
“We have developed a plan towards meeting the 31 July deadline, and our teams are working tirelessly to achieve it,” Sentech spokeswoman Delia Kaunda told TechCentral in response to e-mailed questions. “Consumers will lose access to television services during the implementation of the frequency changes. The television set must be rescanned to tune in to the new channels.”
Sentech provided TechCentral with a detailed table of frequency changes in Excel format to help viewers find channel frequencies in their area after the switch.
Viewers who struggle to access any of terrestrial channels after 31 July have been advised to contact the Sentech call centre. Both E.tv and the SABC are reliant on the state-owned signal distributor Sentech to implement the frequency changes.
The SABC did not respond to TechCentral’s enquiries regarding its readiness to meet the minister’s deadline. However, e.tv said it is ready to meet it.
“E.tv had to switch off transmitters in Rustenburg and George,” said e.tv chief technology officer Junior Qwabe last week in response to questions. “A further four transmitters – Hoedspruit, Tzaneen, East London and Cape Town – have to be returned to frequencies below 694MHz.”
The move is part of a larger digital migration project that requires all broadcasters to switch from analogue to digital signals. This project was meant to be completed by December 2010, but repeated delays have frustrated mobile operators, which have been unable to access the spectrum to expand their broadband coverage.
The final deadline to complete the entire project has been moved to 31 December 2024.