A billion-rand project to upgrade television broadcasts from analogue
to digital technology is so crucial that signal distributor Sentech
should be relieved of its other duties, industry experts have proposed, writes Lesley Stones in Business Day.

Such a move would end ambitious plans for Sentech to set up a national wireless network to take internet services to consumers, and would axe its involvement in an undersea cable linking SA to Sudan.

The proposals come in a 61-page Draft Broadcasting Digital Migration Strategy drawn up for the communications department. Sentech has previously denied there are any plans to split it up or strip out some of its activities, but the strategy document suggests that would be the sensible option.

The call to drastically reduce Sentech’s mandate has also been fuelled by its cash crunch and its haemorrhaging of quality technicians — which insiders blame on managerial incompetence and an atmosphere of victimisation.

Now that dispirited mood is heightened by uncertainty as Sentech waits for a verdict on its future.

The new proposals seem highly likely to be rejected, however, since they clash with previous strategies emanating from the communications department. Sentech’s mandate is not likely to change, says director- general Lyndall Shope-Mafole.

One direct conflict is with a grand plan by Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri to have Sentech build a national wireless network to take high-speed internet access to businesses and consumers, particularly in rural areas. The network expansion will cost R3bn, yet that project received no cash at all in this year’s budget.

The document also calls for a U-turn on Sentech’s role in the Nepad Network, which will increase Africa’s bandwidth by laying an undersea cable around the east coast. Sentech was granted R21m towards that project in the budget, so the new proposal is a clear conflict of strategy.

Sentech communications manager Pranill Ramchander says the issues raised in the document have not been communicated to Sentech’s board, nor has Sentech received any reply to the comments it submitted to the department on the new proposals.

Sentech is struggling to achieve its goals because of a lack of cash. Chief financial officer Siddique Cassim hopes that crisis will end when it is given permission to raid the government’s R3bn contingency fund. So far its request to draw on that money has not been answered. Nor has the department granted its request to borrow money from the private sector instead of relying on government handouts. “Sentech is still waiting for feedback on that,” Ramchander says.

Click here to read the full report, posted on Business Day's website.