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South Africa's LTE mobile services may just have hit yet another delay

The prospect of more spectrum for LTE mobile services in South Africa has receded again, after new wrangles about the country's switch to digital television.

The flag of the African National Congress, a party "at war" with the South African government over the switch to digital TV. Image: iStock

Plans to migrate terrestrial TV broadcast services from analogue to digital, freeing up much-needed spectrum for wireless broadband, have been thrown into question in South Africa again, following a spat between communications minister Faith Muthambi and her own party, the ANC.

South Africa missed the ITU deadline for digital migration in June, largely due to wrangling over the format digital signals should take, which has been ongoing for a decade, frustrating network operators desperate to access more spectrum for LTE services.

The critical part of the hold-up has been about including encryption and conditional access capabilities in settop boxes.

Because so many of South Africa's population will be unable to afford to buy separate boxes to receive digital programming, the government has committed to providing subsidised units for up to five million households to facilitate the switchover.

Many broadcasters and media companies want the subsidised settop boxes to include encryption technology, partly to prevent piracy but also to provide a platform for new pay-TV services which can compete with incumbent satellite TV provider, Multichoice.

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Multichoice, meanwhile, has lobbied hard to prevent including encryption in the boxes for the same reasons.

The issue was thought to be decided in March, when Muthambi announced that encryption would not be required for broadcasters and settop boxes - although broadcasters would be free to offer encrypted services via digital TV with their own boxes.

This decision was hailed as a breakthrough in the migration process and has been successfully defended in court following an objection by broadcaster eTV.

Muthambi went on to say that she expected the delivery of settop boxes to take two years, although she has yet to set a date for the switch-off of analogue services.

However, at the recent ANC National General Council -- an event held every five years -- the party discussed the policy and censured Mathambi for not consulting with its communications sub-committee before deciding policy.

Writing for the Daily Maverick, political journalist Stephen Grootes describes the ANC and the communications ministry as being "at war".

Tshepo Ramodibe, executive head of corporate affairs at the country's largest mobile operator Vodacom, said the developments could delay the allocation of digital-dividend spectrum, which will in turn hurt the economy at large.

"It's well documented that the high-demand spectrum that will be available from the migration dividend will have positive spin-offs for the South African consumer," Ramodibe said.

"It will ensure that consumers, including those who reside in the rural villages of our country, will have access to broadband and thus improve their lives through the use of broadband internet."

But some analysts are hopeful that the problems can be resolved before they impact the migration process.

Steven Ambrose, of StrategyWorx, said operators are ready to begin using spectrum as soon as it is allocated, and that the process is picking up momentum. However, he warns that if there are delays, "South Africa will fall further behind with regard to its peers."

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