Broadcasting a digital SA

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, is well underway and there is no way for South African companies to avoid or escape it

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The time has come to embrace all things digital, from mobile connectivity to artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), these new technologies have the potential to disrupt every industry, and radio and television are no different.

“When it comes to the digital transformation, South Africa has shown pockets of excellence and there are some exciting innovations happening. We just need to look at the South Africans like Elon Musk and Mark Shuttleworth, who have made great strides in developing new technologies, or even Naspers, who has been involved in the digital transformation for many years already. I think while we might be lagging behind in some areas of innovation, research and development, it is because we don’t yet see the impact of these pockets of excellence directly in the SA economy,” says Mlamli Booi, CEO.

“Here at Sentech, we are working on a number of exciting projects, including the launch of South Africa’s own communication satellite. We are really trying to push the frontiers of new technology in delivering OTT. As a country, I believe that we are not there as leaders, and we’re not yet fully prepared for what’s to come as we don’t yet have the skills needed to move forward into 4IR. For this reason, I think it’s very important that we keep learning about new technologies and new management methodologies as we continue to invest in the skills of the future. We are not at the cutting edge of digital transformation but we’re not at the tail end either,” he adds.

Sentech first began its operations in 1992 as the signal distributor of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, and its mandate also included providing services to M-Net, Radio 702, Radio Ciskei, Radio Transkei and the Bophuthatswana Broadcasting Corporation. In 1996, the Sentech Act 63 of 1996 was amended, converting Sentech into a separate public company responsible for providing broadcasting signal distribution services as a ‘common carrier’ to licensed television and radio broadcasters.

A signal for change

Today, Sentech is the backbone of broadcasting in South Africa, providing broadcast transmission services to public broadcasters’ commercial radio and television stations, and over 150 community radio stations countrywide. Its infrastructure and data communications platforms also provide services to South Africa’s telecommunication sector and mobile providers. Operating as a commercial enterprise owned by the South African government via the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (new DCDT), its board of directors reports directly to the Minister of Communications.

“Our network covers the whole country, we have 367 sites countrywide that transmit TV and radio. As an organisation, we have instilled a vision to become a global leader in digital content delivery, and this speaks to the whole value chain. One of the biggest steps in achieving this is the move from analogue TV to digital TV. We have been working tirelessly to provide the necessary platforms to deliver this digital content to all customers.

“Going forward, we need to make sure that we build an organisation that is innovative and entrepreneurial. We need to identify areas of new development in the market, as well as current pain points for our customers and come up with solutions for these challenges. We work with customers and develop solutions to solve their challenges. We work to develop new products together with our customer, while continuously looking at new opportunities outside of our current offering, like providing broadband services and working towards closing the access-to-Internet gap by assisting the state to reach outlying areas with wireless broadband services,” he says.

According to him, all content that is produced in today’s modern era must be delivered digitally and access to content must be universal. This means that we are moving to a time where people should be able to receive content anywhere using any device.

“We are making good progress but we have a long way to go to achieve universal access to broadband. There is still a gap in society, where many South Africans still have no access to the Internet, streaming services or e-services,” Booi explains.

Television, one of the nation’s favourite pastimes, plays a large role in the everyday lives of all South Africans. Sentech currently provides audio-visual content for more than 11.4-million homes through its broadcasting network.

“This new digital standard for satellite and terrestrial TV involves converting the transmission from analogue to digital and so, to accommodate this transmission change, we have recently finished a national upgrade of our network, converting all of our TV transmitters to digital TV. Our next challenge, however, is to make sure that everyone has the correct receiving equipment.

“Set-top boxes (STBs) technology, which is somewhat outdated technology, for free, to air reception due to the availability of integrated TV sets, which are fitted with a DTT tuner. However, these are still pricey for most people, especially those targeted for subsidised STBs. In South Africa, STBs will remain a requirement for some time until the market more aggressively promotes TVs with digital tuners. This has been challenging for us, as we should be switching off analogue TV transmissions and starting the process of frequency stacking while also freeing up spectrum in the 700MHZ and 800MHZ range for other mobile services,” Booi says.

In addition to Sentech’s vast terrestrial network, the company also offers a Direct-to-Home (DTH) Satellite platform—a universal open access interoperable platform that is designed to provide broadcasters and content aggregators with the rapid deployment of a universally accessible satellite broadcast platform.

“This platform has contributed greatly to the emerging redefinition of the country’s digital multi-Channel television broadcasting industry, and it aims to contribute to the future growth of the content industry in general and the free-to-air (FTA) broadcasting and emerging subscription broadcasting industries.

“Our primary focus remains in the media platform space where we will continue to deliver TV and radio to South Africans far and wide. We are looking at moving into the streaming services space in addition to our terrestrial and extra-terrestrial satellite platforms. We’re much more focused on digital television and digital radio, which is still subject to policy and regulation updates. Digital radio will, however, also offer more capacity for radio to expand. It is a very efficient use of real estate compared to analogue,” he explains.

At the centre of innovation

Upon his arrival at Sentech three-and-a-half years ago, Booi established an innovation-focused team, and their role is to identify areas of growth and research in order to develop new and exciting innovations.

“One of these innovations is providing content over an OTT network. This is the same platform used by Showmax and Netflix, but we plan to take our OTT platform and deliver it via satellite—allowing the likes of SABC and eTV to deliver their content in a new and exciting way. This is just one of the innovations coming out of this new team, and we will continue to build these capabilities as we use the world-class infrastructure we have to deliver IoT to ordinary South African citizens.

“Other possible innovations for the future include delivering broadband through television white space,” says Booi.

The company has recently introduced B2B broadband services to the broadband market by providing connectivity to public sector entities such as schools, clinics and other state-owned entities.

“We believe that it is our duty to assist the country by bringing broadband to underserved areas and we are in a prime position to close the broadband access gap. The private sector is doing a great job in terms of providing broadband in high-density areas, but rural communities remain poorly connected,” he says.

Sentech is participating in the SA Connect project, which is currently managed by Broadband Infraco (BBI).

“Our focus is on fixed wireless broadband. From the nearest fibre point-of-presence (POP), we install microwave backhaul systems and use fixed wireless access to cover the last mile. In very remote areas where there is no nearby fibre POP, we make use of our VSAT infrastructure,” Booi says.

Regarding the proposed South African communications satellite, Booi recently visited the International Telecommunication Satellite Organisation (ITSO) where South Africa is the current chairman, effective from last year.

“As an SOC, we have been designated to host the preparation and management of a new communications satellite project, where we plan to launch South Africa’s own communication satellite. We are in the process of setting up a project management office and doing what is necessary for the government to execute this satellite strategy,” he says.

Transformation is a priority

Sentech supports underprivileged communities, mainly in the field of education and health through its corporate social investment (CSI) Schools Connectivity Programme. Fifty-two schools have been connected to date. The company has also established and funded a programme to provide extra Maths and Science classes to 300 learners from Grade 10 to 12.

“This has been one of our most successful projects so far and we have seen very good results from the learners who have attended the centre. This project is important in that it shows that we are not just pursuing business, but that there is a social side to us too,” he says.

Enterprise and supplier development also forms part of Sentech’s transformation and development mandate. Through its ESD initiatives, the company stimulates the growth of small and medium enterprises, creates jobs and provides critical ICT intensive skills for the economy.

So far, Sentech has incubated 20 SMMEs, of which 18 are potential suppliers and two are existing suppliers.

“We have also partnered and collaborated with three universities—the University of Pretoria, University of Witwatersrand and University of Cape Town—to sponsor research and bursaries for undergraduate and postgraduate students in the electrical engineering field.

“Going into this industrial revolution, I think it’s critical that our learning institutions keep up to date and keep pace with development. It has become a necessity to equip our young people properly and rather than train them to find jobs, we need to teach them how to be entrepreneurs to create jobs. I think that the SMME sector is where most of our growth will come from and so we need to have our young people creating value. Sure, not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur, but they need to be able to find solutions to the new challenges and issues we face in a digital age,” he says.

The company also runs internships through the MICT SETA to assist graduates coming into the working world. They have employed 62% of the 220 students that have been part of this programme over the last 10 years.

An organisation to be proud of

While there may currently be a lot of negativity and uncertainty surrounding SOEs in South Africa, Booi is proud of the fact that they have obtained a clean audit for six consecutive years, and this is partly due to good governance and professionalism, he says.

“We run a well-respected organisation, one that we can be proud of—not only can we boast a profitable entity but also a clean operation. For us, innovation isn’t just about new technology, but a different way of doing things. The world is changing and we must look at how we can apply those changes in this current business environment,” says Booi.

All of the company’s operations are rooted by one strategy—aptly named the Sentech way. This strategy focuses on seven pillars to drive their core culture while factoring in some room for change.

“Change is exciting and we want an organisation that is thinking, sleeping and breathing innovation. Our seven strategic pillars will continue to guide our path in achieving our strategic objectives. These strategic pillars include growth through leveraging existing businesses, expansion to Pan-African markets, the acquisition of synergistic businesses, strategic partnerships and the deployment of wireless broadband.

Other pillars include the innovation of new products and services, customer focus, managing our reputation, driving efficiencies and socio-economic transformation.

“We are deeply committed to the transformation of the ICT sector, both from a technology and human capacity point of view. We have done a great deal of introspection in order to improve on the services we offer, and plan to offer in future, and as we’ve brought our customers back as our main focus point, they will soon begin to feel the difference,” Booi concludes. 

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