M-Net posturing poses threat to migration

[By Muzi Makhaye]

In recent weeks, it’s been almost impossible not to miss M-Net’s criticism of everything that makes for SA’s broadcast digital migration programme.

M-Net’s calls for a cheap “converter box” to replace set-top boxes in the migration are as absurd as last year’s calls for the Japanese-Brazilian ISDB-T digital broadcasting standard to replace the European DVB-T system in SA.

The converter box will not fulfil the objectives for digital migration. Neither will it replace the set-top box’s functionality. M-Net and its sister company MultiChoice have never used a digital converter in their business and will never do so, so why are they proposing it?

The answer lies somewhere between insatiable corporate greed and obfuscation. It’s probably a bit of both.

For more than a year, the industry fought side-by-side with its colleagues at M-Net/MultiChoice for the retention of DVB-T as the country’s chosen standard and against the imposition of ISDB-T. The Brazilians took full advantage of our dithering and indecision as a country. M-Net/MultiChoice, for all the right reasons, spoke in favour of local manufacturing of set-top boxes. Last month, they began dangling a lousy converter box as a solution over set-top boxes.

M-Net knows that as far back as 2008 (6 August to be precise), cabinet approved the broadcasting digital migration policy and then green-lighted a set-top box manufacturing strategy. The pay-TV broadcaster has had all that time to suggest better technologies — if there were any — but chose to try to scuttle the migration process with its latest posturing.

M-Net’s Karen Willenberg, Orbicom’s Gerhard Petrick and MultiChoice’s Gerdus van Eeden are the proponents of converter boxes and can only succeed in delaying the migration — and that, I submit, is their brief.

M-Net and MultiChoice continue to cast decoys in the migration path. They stifle progress on all the fronts. If it’s not about the multiplex used, it is the conditional access system or the set-top box. The list goes on. With their credibility oozing away, they’d be better advised to ponder this: why should they be taken seriously on matters of digital migration in SA?

Contrary to what M-Net and MultiChoice would have us believe, delays in migration, I submit, have been their doing. Delays serve only their interests and no one else’s.

In the past three years, the public broadcaster, the SABC, has lost viewers every time M-Net/MultiChoice launched a new product targeting lower-end LSM viewers. The one saviour the SABC has is digital television, with its multi-channel offerings. That’s what the pay-TV guys in Randburg dread.

M-Net’s double-speak disqualifies the company from pronouncing credibly on how little time there is for manufacturers to produce the set-top boxes.

After making its preference for converter boxes over set-top boxes clear, I don’t trust them to represent the manufacturers. As such, M-Net must rather leave set-top manufacturing issues to the manufacturers and their customers.

After all, the manufacturers have always represented themselves well on these issues. We don’t want our desperate circumstances to be cannon fodder for M-Net/MultiChoice’s ill motives.

To assert, as M-Net’s Willenberg does, that South Africans would be forever tied to technology that will become outdated is mischievous and a distortion of the facts.

The best way M-Net could contribute to digital migration would be by being more cooperative with the wider industry and being less combative as it discovers there’s competition looming on the horizon. The published set-top box standard, which was crafted with M-Net’s valuable input, cannot be said to be complex. It is so basic that we have some government departments expressing displeasure with its limited scope.

M-Net does not like the idea of encryption as it argues it makes the box expensive. What it doesn’t say is that without such encryption, government will not be able to subsidise the set-top boxes. Which government would make such an investment without ensuring protection of the asset?

Not doing so would be similar to buying a motor car and not taking insurance for it. Encryption is meant to prevent local manufacturers from the Chinese onslaught. It’s a genuine effort by government to protect local manufacturers and allow them to amass the capacity to export.

We will continue encountering detractors of the government-led migration programme. M-Net and MultiChoice fit this description well: they are antagonistic to anyone who seeks to expedite digital migration.

It is disconcerting that government gets swayed and hoodwinked by established broadcasters, even to the detriment of its developmental programmes. As things stand, M-Net and MultiChoice pose a serious threat to migration.

  • Muzi Makhaye is CEO of ABT, an emerging set-top box manufacturer
  • The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of TechCentral

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  • http://twitter.com/thewomble_za Greg Mahlknecht

    >> Encryption is meant to prevent local manufacturers from the Chinese onslaught. It’s a genuine effort by government to protect local manufacturers and allow them to amass the capacity to export.

    How come, then, most the STB’s that everyone buys to watch DSTV are locally produced, even though they don’t use any special technology to tie them to Multichoice?  I can buy a 3rd party decoder or PC card that handles the IRDETO2 card, plug it in, and it will work.

    Multichoice is, in this case, practicing what they preach.  To me it’s irrelevant whether they get some short-term benefit out of it, because the long-term benefits to the country as a whole vastly outweigh this.

    10 years from now when the digital converters come built in free to every TV bought, and consumers sill have to buy some silly little STB to connect to South Africa’s special little protected broadcast system, we’ll look back and think how stupid we were to tie ourselves in to custom solutions, just to build another protected industry who can’t compete in the international market on their own merit.

    >Muzi Makhaye is CEO of ABT, an emerging set-top box manufacturer

    Pot calling the kettle black?

    If Muzi as an STB manufacturer doesn’t think he can compete, maybe he should study how UEC gets it done, as they obviously have what it takes to compete on an international playing field.

  • Anonymous

    “Encryption is meant to prevent local manufacturers from a Chinese onslaught”. Mmmm. that seems to be a violation of the WTO Agreement that member states should not put in place technical barriers to trade.  It also raises the question that if local manufacturers cannot compete with international competitors on price, should they be getting into the game in the first place, and if this is meant to protect them from competing on price does that not come at the cost of South African consumers paying more in the long run? Another question is whether our so called “local manufacturers” are actually going to be manufacturering or are they really going to be importing Chinese components and assembling them here? Government should keep in mind how protecting the local textile industry led to that industry never becoming internationally competitive, as it never had any market pressures to keep the price of its product competitive with international trade.

    It should also be kept in mind that if government wants to protect their investment in 5 million STBs this can be done without requiring the national standard for the whole 10 milllion TV household market to adopt encrypted STBs. All they need to do is require as a condition of the tender to be awarded to local manufacturers for the 5 million STBs that they be locked to the SA DTT network using a simple multiplex verification process, which was provided for in the 2009 SABS standard in the form of the requirement of a unique SA identification number to be included by manufacturers in the free-to-air STB. 

  • http://twitter.com/thewomble_za Greg Mahlknecht

    >Another question is whether our so called “local manufacturers” are actually going to be manufacturering or are they really going to be importing Chinese components and assembling them here?

    That’s a very good point.  All they have to do is import some cheap box, flash it with new firmware, and sell it on with a huge markup, and take government for a ride.  This whole thing sounds a lot less like “protecting manufacturers”, and a lot more like another enrichment scheme for a bunch of connected businessmen to get their paws on a large part of that R1bil fund, rather than it benefiting the poor.

  • Mark

    Since when do private companies dictate to governments about the technology that must be used.I have just been down this road in Nairobi.All boxes have to meet the specifications of the CCK  (Communications Commission of Kenya.).They had a debacle with DVBT decoders becoming obsolete with the introduction of DVB T2 ,so now the receiver industry is regulated.
    One question,will pay tv operators be willing to install their encryption technology with another system in the same receiver. ie.Nagravision and Cryptoworks?
    Many receivers can accept several cams and different encryption cards.This is not the case here.Why not?
    I was told at Mediatech by the MNET representative that this market can only sustain one receiver for everything.

  • Anonymous

    Muzi, your article is biased & 1 sided as you represent those that are desperately seeking business of manufacturing STB’s.Obviously as a CEO of ABT, your concerns are not the best possible and cost effective solution to DTT but to your profits.

    If the converter is a cheaper option, I dont see the reason why we cannot have it instead of this STB’s. Companies like yours and Altech have already spent millions of rands in equipment and factories to manufacture STBs,I guess you are looking after your investment chief.And most of all you guys dont even know anything about DTT but are key players because of the BEE Equity deal,most likely your company is rooted somewhere in Asia.My view is that we must first have a testing phase of both these devices before we can declare the other to be more “relevant”. 5 years down the line, what will our people be stuck with?

  • http://twitter.com/Arfness Andrew Fraser

    “Encryption is meant to prevent local manufacturers from the Chinese onslaught. It’s a genuine effort by government to protect local manufacturers and allow them to amass the capacity to export.”

    Short question: Why?

    The objective of digital migration has nothing to do with protectionism.    That’s *your* agenda, Muzi.  All protectionism will create in this case is a moribund uncompetitive industry that produces products that are outdated, to service an artificially complex solution to a simple problem.

    DVB-T2 (and DVB-T, before the DoC had a brainfart and decided to see what the Brazillians would pay for a change to ISDB) products are easily available,  as STB, “converters” and integrated into television sets.  Adding encryption to free-to-air programming is stupid, and benefits nobody but a few fat cats.  The taxpayer and TV viewer will have to carry the bill for this insanity.  

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