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South Africa Still Far from Fair Digital Migration

South Africa’s Constitutional Court has decided to strike down the government’s plans to end old-style analogue television broadcasting at the end of June. The decision upholds the right to information, which poor South Africans would have been denied as government has been slow to roll out the devices they need to access the new digital signal. But the decision further delays migration to digital broadcasting and will leave South Africa struggling longer with a lack of urgently needed bandwidth. The migration would free up space on the frequency spectrum for mobile data and other uses. At the heart of the problem is the fact that the frequency spectrum has limited space for the radio, television, cellphone and other signals it carries. Newer digital technologies dramatically increase carrying capacity, and the ballooning demand for digital services has created massive demand for additional spectrum to be released. The lack of bandwidth has been identified as a major obstacle to lowering data costs and hence promoting economic growth. The government has had some success on the other end of the digital migration problem. After long and complex court battles, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa successfully held an auction of frequency space in March this year, realising R14.4 billion (about US$900 million) from six mobile companies. The amount far exceeded expectations and reflects how valuable frequency space is. Treasury will be glad of the tidy windfall, too.