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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  • Greg Mahlknecht

    Duncan’s in direct contact with the Minister and his peers. I’ll keep turning to him for the facts.

  • Antonio

    Wrong. Multichoice will have to apply fro a FREE to AIR licence if Multichoice wants to broadcast FREE to Air channels.
    SABC – today – is not allowed to offer PAY TV. SABC is – today – a FREE to Air broadcaster.

    But SABC might apply for PAY TV like anybody else and get it because of gov. DSTV might apply for a FREE to Air licence but will not get it. There are already talks to unbundle DSTV because DSTV has signed up lots of contracts before TopTV and other new broadcasters could compete.

    SABC is more likely to get a PAY TV licence than DSTV getting a FREE 2 Air licence.

  • Antonio

    Good move. The statements on CA was made by SABC personnel at the Coloquium. And not by the new Minister.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    Yes, I’ve acknowledged this exact possibility, and said why it would be a terrible outcome. If government has to start penalizing other players because SABC and others are too incompetent to compete, then it would be a terrible thing, for the same reason as the state protection of Telkom decades back was a bad idea. I thought we’d moved on from that.

    I’d be all for unbundling DSTV, so long as it’s not targetted at DSTV specifically, and were general laws aiming at creating an environment that benefits everyone and didn’t penalize DSTV too much. DSTV might be a tough nut to crack, but a short-term solution of dragging them down to everyone else’s level is bad. We need a long-term solution where it creates a competitor of DSTV’s quality. Make no mistake, DSTV are a world-class broadcaster, they’re just too damn expensive!

  • Antonio

    DSTV and eTV are both doing well. eTV had only one channel to make a living from for many years. eTV applied and got a new PAY TV licence, along with Telkom Media, TopTV, Walk on Water but eTV decided to give up their PAY TV licence. ETV is now FREE 2 AIR with 15 FREE channels.

    ETV has no licence anymore to broadcast PAY TV.

    But Gov might see an opportunity for SABC to enter PAY TV and why not?

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    >But might see an opportunity for SABC to enter PAY TV and why not?

    Agree 100%, I just want it to be fair for everyone. You’re very outspoken about getting free premium content to the public – you should be massively in favour of Multichoice a free-to-air license, right? They have by FAR the best content – would be nice of them to share some for free.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    As you said about the Coloquium: “That was a couple of months ago. So things changed.”

    Hopefully the minister makes a decision, then what SABC, Multichoice, eTV want won’t matter, and we can move on and get this show on the road!

  • Antonio

    No – not at all. Multichoice found its market. It is time for new broadcasters to enter the market. The problem with adding more broadcasters is the number of set top boxes need. You need 1 for DSTV, one for SABC DVB-T2 and one for OpenView. Three set top boxes. You can add TopTV and Sentech FreeVision as well. Then you own 5 set top boxes.

    SABC/Sentech should rent out channels to whoever gets a FREE 2 Air licence all using the same box.

    SABC/Sentech could also offer channels for PAY TV licence holders using 1 box with CA.

    CA makes it possible to deliver channels on behalf of a number of broadcasters or channel owners.

  • Antonio

    Cabinet made its decision in favour of CA already. We should be able to move on.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    We agree on everything apart from who should subsidize these converged CA STB’s. I say it should be the broadcasters. You think it should be the government. Let’s just wait for the Minister to make a decision on that, then one of us can moan about it :)

    Edit: changed “customers” to “government”

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    Is this decision of any relevance, and is it binding, though? This very article at the top of the page challenges the legitimacy of that decision.

  • Antonio

    Gov has made the decision to fund the box. This is a once off for Gov. Sentech/SABC will handle and maintain boxes in future.
    Gov funds a lot of projects.

    Let Gov pay for these boxes. We’ll all benefit from premium content, job creation, release of white spaces and maybe new PAY TV on Sentech/SABC boxes.

  • Antonio

    Don’t know. The Minister was supposed to make a Media statement on Friday but it was postponed because of Madiba.
    This week might be out because of Gov functions. and then it is Christmas.

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