Digital leads in battle of two systems
SA consumers are embracing satellite TV technology. GREG GORDON looks at developments in the local industry
SOUTH Africa's R1-billion satellite television industry is set to boom after a rocky start 18 months ago.
Things look rosy for the digital satellite sector, but there is uncertainty on the future of analogue broadcasting, which has been a slow starter.
"It's fair to say that the take-up of satellite technology in South Africa was slow, but we have turned the corner," says Annemarie Hutchinson, marketing manager at decoder manufacturer Pace.
"The first year was slow for several reasons: the Panasat factory burnt down which took away competition for a while but, more seriously, left it to one company to spread the marketing word. Prices were high, too, a side effect of any new technology."
But, says Hutchinson, June was a record month for sales when decoder prices dropped to R3 000 (from an initial R5 000) and 7 800 new subscribers signed up.
"We were getting orders for 330 decoders a day. This sort of growth is sustainable. Over the next four or five years we expect there to be more than a million digital satellite TV subscribers from the current 100 000."
South Africa, together with Australia and Thailand, has been a pioneer in the digital satellite TV market. Despite the slow start in South Africa, digital systems are fairly easy to sell because there is no replacement market. In Europe, where there is a strong analogue market, digital converts will have to cough up again for the newer technology.
It is just a matter of time, however, before analogue systems will have to be replaced - in future most broadcasts will be digital because more information can be squeezed on to satellites delivering digital signals.
Cost conscious broadcasters know that seven digital channels can be broadcast from a single transponder on a satellite for every one analogue channel.
Analogue systems are cheaper, but experts say buyers look at the programmes that are on offer from broadcasters rather than the technology or price.
While analogue systems are a boon in communities not reached by terrestrial signals from the SABC, digital systems offer a much wider choice of programmes.
There are still, however, a few wounds that need to heal before South African consumers embrace satellite technology with any sort of enthusiasm. Many have been stung by the sellers of inferior equipment and many remember the Asec debacle - a start-up that went out of business before it hit the airwaves.
Some analysts say South Africa's adoption of analogue and digital systems has slowed sales of decoders - they are mutually exclusive. Digital decoders will not receive analogue signals and vice versa. To get the most complete satellite TV service, subscribers will have to buy both analogue and digital systems which, together, cost around R6 000.
The jury is still out on the SABC's analogue satellite TV service and this has given the digital market time to grow. In time, most satellite services will be digital which means that the analogue service is already operating under a shadow.
Eventually, digital decoders will be cheaper than analogue because of manufacturing economies of scale. Digital's time has come but at what cost to the analogue sector and its subscribers? Time will tell.