Digital television is set to add to the thrills of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but will poor households be able to afford the R700 required to make the switch from analogue, asks Imke van Hoorn in the Mail & Guardian. 

the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but will poor households be able to afford the R700 required to make the switch from analogue?

By November 2011, all South African households must be switched to digital television, according to the government's digital broadcasting migration policy, which was accepted by the Cabinet last week.

The policy determines the framework for changing broadcasting from the existing analogue signal to a digital one. To enable South Africans to make the switch, the government will provide so-called set-top boxes.

However, these boxes will cost R700 each — much more expensive than the current standard TV decoders of about R300, used by MultiChoice subscribers.

There are about eight million households with television sets in South Africa, says the South African Broadcasting Corporation, and it has 7,1-million TV licence accounts on its database — some fully paid up, others only partially paid.

If eight million households paid the one-off R700 decoder fee in full, it would earn the government R5,6-billion.

According to Joe Makhafola, a spokesperson for the Department of Communications, "the costs [of digital television] outweigh the benefits by far". He says the boxes will provide specialised new television services and programmes dedicated to education, health, the youth and small and medium enterprises.

Because analogue broadcasting takes up so much room in the frequency spectrum, converting to digital broadcasting will create space for more channels.

The government will therefore offer services such as provincial content and parliamentary and government information, and provide television content in more South African languages.

Lara Kantor, chairperson of Digital Dzonga ("digital south"), the body appointed by the government to advise on the implementation of digital television, says: "If you go in with a simple box, you will lose the opportunity to offer additional services."

She emphasises that the government only asks R700 one-off, and that there will be no recurring subscription costs such as MultiChoice's. Also, over time the decoders will become cheaper, she says. "In other markets we experienced that prices will fall down by 20% to 30% every year."

'Heavily overpriced'
However, according to Arthur Goldstuck, media analyst and commentator on information and communications technology (ICT), the government's set-top boxes are "heavily overpriced".

He says: "I asked the government why their decoders are so much more expensive. They told me it was because of the 'cream on top'."

Goldstuck says that this "cream on top" mainly refers to the government decoders' ability to receive an individual signal, enabling the government to pipe specific information to specific households. The new decoders also offer the ability for viewers to give feedback and send information.

Click here to read the full report, posted on M&G Online.