Wednesday, March 02, 2011

South Africa - New minister is making progress, settled standards dispute over digital TV and looking at broadband

[financial mail] Communications minister Roy Padayachie has notched up some quiet successes since taking the job in October.

For one thing, he ended the confusion created by the communications department over which digital TV standard to adopt. A review process he put in place led to the selection of the European standard over the one backed by South Korea and Brazil.

His commitment to the European standard has brought the process back on track and allayed fears that a switch to the Korean/Brazilian standard would push the migration process back years and cost the local technology sector millions.

Padayachie is also behind moves to tighten the department’s oversight at the crisis-ridden SABC, Telkom and Sentech.

Though he has tidied up some messes , he has not yet spelt out the specifics of what he sees as priorities for his department.

A national broadband policy has been doing the rounds for a while but is short on specifics. “ We are hoping for a vision rather than some ad hoc response to issues in the sector,” says Research ICT Africa executive director Alison Gillwald.

She says: “There will be no dramatic shift in policy without a public process.”

This was evident when Padayachie met 30 of the top ICT businesses leaders last week to get their views on what was needed to boost the sector.

The meeting was well received by the participants. They have long complained that the department made little effort to consult them and tended to come up with policy in a vacuum. “It was very refreshing,” says Allied Technology (Altech) CEO Craig Venter.

Venter was one of the harshest critics of the move to review the digital TV standard process and had tried to schedule a meeting, without success, on six occasions with Padayachie’s predecessor, Siphiwe Nyanda.

Meeting these business leaders is only the beginning of Padayachie’s engagement with the sector.

“He also plans to meet the smaller companies. He does not want to get roped into seeing to the needs of a few larger ones,” says Venter.

Padayachie has not revealed his vision for the sector but this will probably be spelt out in the next few weeks when he delivers his department’s budget speech. What is already clear is that the migration from analogue to digital broadcasting will be one of his most pressing concerns.

The conversion to digital broadcasting is seen by government and business as a way to boost the local technology sector.

“Digital migration is a low-hanging fruit,” says Venter. The conversion will mean SA’s 11m TVs will need their own set-top boxes or satellite dishes to convert the signal.

The migration will open up opportunities for small electronics companies, because even a large manufacturer such as Altech would be able to make only 2m set-top boxes a year.

Venter says the migration will create thousands of jobs. Altech and consumer electronics group Ellies are planning to set up about 20000 small businesses to install the set-top boxes.

The conversion to digital broadcasting is not the only thing on Padayachie’s to- do list. He is committed to overseeing Telkom opening up its network to allow its rivals access to its local exchanges by November. The auction of radio spectrum that will enable new high-speed data services is also a priority.

In addition, the minister has to appoint a new director-general for his department following the abrupt departure of Mamodupi Mohlala.

Padayachie has a full in-tray and has yet to articulate his vision but when he does, there is a good chance it will be well thought out and based on broad consultation.

Communication at last

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