Digital TV move sows confusion

The SABC and MultiChoice are understood to be seething over the decision to include a control system in government-subsidised set-top boxes. By Duncan McLeod.

Yunus Carrim

Yunus Carrim

Cabinet’s decision, led by communications minister Yunus Carrim, to mandate the use of an encryption system based on a control system in the set-top boxes that government will subsidise for poorer households has drawn both warm praise and stinging criticism from industry players.

The SABC and MultiChoice are both understood to be fuming at the decision, which they believe has largely gone in favour of rival e.tv. MultiChoice is not commenting, an SABC spokesman could not be reached for comment and e.tv didn’t repond to an e-mail seeking comment.

It’s understood that Carrim may have encountered pressure from some of his colleagues in cabinet who wanted the use of the control system — often also referred to as conditional access — in an effort to support local manufacturers.

E.tv has been lobbying strongly for a control system based on conditional access, while MultiChoice and the SABC are strongly opposed to the idea.

MultiChoice has argued that including a control system would result in taxpayers funding the cost of deploying a set-top box that e.tv and other broadcasters can then use to launch pay-television services. E.tv has denied it has any plans to offer pay services on the free-to-air boxes.

Government spokesman Phumla Williams said in a statement on Thursday that cabinet had decided that the use of a control system should not be mandatory, though it’s unclear what that means and whether, as in many other countries, South Africans will be able to purchase a simple digital converter to access digital broadcasts.

Carrim had been scheduled to hold a press conference on Friday morning to discuss the issues in greater detail, but this was postponed at the last minute after news broke of the death of former president Nelson Mandela.

It appears from government’s statement, however, that the department of communications is intent on establishing some sort of conditional access authority, possibly asking state-owned broadcasting signal distributor Sentech to manage it.

Williams said that cabinet had decided to manage the system to avoid subscription broadcasters unfairly benefiting from the subsidised boxes.

Government’s investment in the system would be recovered from subscription broadcasters that choose to use it.

She said government wanted the control system to protect its investment in the subsidised boxes and for “future use by broadcasters who might not want to use it now”.

But in managing the system, government could be in breach of a court order, according to Vijay Panday, chairman of the electronics manufacturing division of the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic Components (Namec).

A high court judgment, in the recent case between e.tv and former communications minister Dina Pule, found that free-to-air broadcasters — and not government — were entitled to manage the conditional access system. The court found that the minister had “no legal power to prescribe or make binding decisions relating to set-top box control”.

“We respect cabinet’s decision, but we need to understand how a judicial ruling that says the minister has no right to make a call on this matter has been ignored,” Panday says. “Is he in violation of a court order?”

He says government’s latest position has created an enormous amount of uncertainty. “It’s very unclear where the minister is coming from. He’s not taking a firm stance on this.”

Panday says cabinet’s decision goes against black economic empowerment and will undermine small, black-owned set-top box manufacturers. “You will kill previously disadvantaged manufacturers because of the costs involved.”

If the state wants to stop subsidised set-top boxes from being sold across the border, it does not have to implement a control system or conditional access, Pandey adds. Rather it can use a software fix in each box to get the job done at much lower cost. “There is no need for a control system to protect government’s investment and to stop boxes from walking out of South Africa.”

However, the South African Communications Forum has an opposing view to Namec’s. Its executive director, Loren Braithwaite Kabosha, says the inclusion of a control system will promote industrial development, job creation, access to information and black empowerment.

“We appreciate that government had to seriously weigh numerous factors and criteria when considering whether or not to include a control system in the subsidised set-top box. In the end, we believe government chose a balanced approach that takes into account the interests of all parties, including government itself, which will be paying for the subsidised boxes,” Kabosha says in a statement.  — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media

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