There are a couple of delays in implementing our Iindaba Ziyafika – the news is coming project around cellphone journalism, supported by the Knight Foundation – but the tardy policy context in South Africa is also a constraint.

At present in South Africa, at least six out of ten adults have access to cellphones, but their main use is for interpersonal conversation. The notion that these are devices that can also be used to receive, and contribute to, journalism is not well-developed beyond sms comments sent to the mass media.

What could begin to change this culture is free-to-air television directed to handhelds. At present, cellphone users with 3G services can receive video programmes – but these work only on advanced handsets, cost the consumer extra subscription money and are subject to network congestion. However, South Africa in November is supposed to commence digital terrestrial broadcasting – including free-to-air services on DVB-H to handheld devices.

Not many cellphones are equipped so far to receive such signals, but it’s a case of the dialectic between chickens and eggs. Many entry-level phones today have built-in cameras as standard; likewise many tomorrow will have chips to receive digital broadcasts. Especially in the build-up to the 2010 World Soccer cup being hosted in South Africa, many locals will seek phone upgrades that can let them tune into clips of key moments.

But, sad to say, the government’s policy framework for digital migration in South Africa is badly delayed. So I’m sceptical that November will inaugurate momentum towards the public coming to see cellphones as more than just glorified walkie-talkies. It would have made our project easier to work with the grain, but then again all this just underlines the importance of proceeding. I wrote in more detail about the delays in government policy recently.

We’ve advertised a top level position which will help co-ordinate the roll-out of Iindaba. This is a really cutting edge job, and we’re looking forward to high quality applicants. Spread the word, please!

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