Time to deal with digital TV mess

South Africa appears set, finally, to make progress in its migration to digital terrestrial television. By Duncan McLeod.

Duncan-McLeod-180-profileCommunications minister Yunus Carrim demonstrated in parliament this week that government may finally be dealing decisively with the impasse over digital terrestrial television that is undermining efforts to get more South Africans connected to broadband.

Carrim’s remarks to parliament’s portfolio committee on communications point to possible imminent progress in the migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television.

The minister provided the portfolio committee with what were clearly well thought-out insights into what will inform government’s decision on whether to support an encryption-based control system in the set-top boxes that government plans to subsidise for up to 5m poorer households. Cabinet could make a call on the matter as soon as its next meeting in early December.

E.tv is lobbying hard for the control system, saying it’s necessary, among other things, to allow free-to-air broadcasters to compete more effectively with MultiChoice, which owns DStv. MultiChoice, in turn, has accused e.tv of wanting government to subsidise its entry into the pay-TV market unfairly, something the free-to-air provider has strenuously denied. Carrim has warned that no matter which way cabinet goes on the issue, it’s likely the losing party will sue.

The minister told parliament that factors cabinet will consider include which approach will best protect the local electronics industry, create jobs and benefit indigenous entrepreneurs. It will also take into account how new entrants into pay TV — presumably leveraging a control system in a government-subsidised box — could “challenge a monopoly”. One can only assume he was referring to MultiChoice, which owns DStv, but Carrim quickly added that this must “not be at the expense of the set-top box subsidy”.

Other factors cabinet will consider include which of the options will be “fastest, simplest and most effective” to implement given that South Africa is already more than five years behind schedule in moving to digital television, and which of the court challenges to cabinet’s decision — from MultiChoice or e.tv — will prove “least strenuous” to defend.

Of course, now that government appears to be applying its mind properly, and looks set to make a decision based on informed discussion, any move by an aggrieved e.tv or MultiChoice to mount a challenge against that decision could quickly turn into a PR disaster.

It’s unfair — as Carrim has done in recent weeks — to pin the blame for the unacceptable delays in digital migration on squabbling between the broadcasters. That finger needs to be pointed squarely at the department of communications.

But when government makes its decision in the coming weeks, e.tv and MultiChoice would be well advised to swallow their pride and accept it. Holding up the process again in the courts would be unthinkable given that South Africa’s incumbent and prospective broadband operators urgently require access to the “digital dividend” spectrum the broadcasters are hogging by not getting a move-on with migration.

It’s important that government doesn’t lose sight of the fact that delivering affordable broadband to South Africans is far more important than appeasing a couple of bullyboy broadcasters.

Yunus Carrim

Yunus Carrim

That said, big questions still remain about the recent channel-supply deal between the SABC and MultiChoice that prevents the public broadcaster from offering its free-to-air channels on any platform that uses an encryption system based on access control.

Carrim neatly sidestepped questions from Democratic Alliance MP Marian Shinn about this in parliament, not commenting specifically on whether SABC acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng had “unilaterally”, as Shinn suggested, decided on government policy when he announced last month that the public broadcaster would not support a control system for set-top boxes. Motsoeneng is clearly politically connected — he is said to enjoy the protection of President Jacob Zuma — and so one wonders what role he might play in whatever decision government ends up making.

Carrim insisted this week that government has not yet made up its mind about the issue one way or the other. “Is the SABC board deciding for government? The answer is a categorical ‘no’. It cannot,” he said. The SABC, he added, “cannot decide policy for its shareholder. But what it says has to be taken seriously.”

Read into that what you will.

  • Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Engage with him on Twitter
  • This column was first published in the Sunday Times
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  • David H

    “Read into that what you will.”
    The determining factor will be the length of the tail that’s wagging the dog.
    This fall into the ‘happy news’ category?

  • Davebee

    Sorry to nit pick the article but I think this is needed…”set-top boxes that government plans to subsidise’
    Should have read ‘set-top boxes that Duncan and the rest of the SA TAX PAYERS are going to subsidise’ (whether they like it or not.)
    This government hasn’t a cent actually, it only hands out OPM or Other Peoples Money to whatever charity IT deems as worthy of subsidy, from set-top boxes to dubious ‘upgrades’ at presidents compounds.

  • Lumina SS

    You dealing with the government, by the time dttv launches everyone else will have a satellite decoder. Freevision “launced” a few months ago and no decoders is available up until now. Keep the article for after the next election, then you can deal with the new communications minister.

  • Antonio

    Best way forward is to use satellite for television. SABC is already available on:
    1. DSTV satellite
    2. OpenView satellite
    3. Freeview satellite
    4. TopTV satellite
    No real need for terrestrial television at a time you can get SABC from 4 other platforms?
    Use terrestrial for broadband. Give everybody broadband access. Go straight for HbbTV – Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV.

  • Marcan

    Don’t keep on repeating yourself. Read the comments below the previous article on this subject, State to act on set top boxes, by Duncan on 5 Nov.

  • Boertjie

    Why do they want to keep reinventing the wheel?

    Use DVB-T2, as the rest of Europe.

    According to Wikipedia: ” In late 2010 the South African cabinet endorsed a decision by a Southern African Development Community (SADC) task team to adopt the DVB-T2 standard”
    Makes sense. Every single flat screen TV being sold contains a DVB decoder built in. Set top boxes are mass produced and cheap as chips!
    The insistance by government that set-top boxes must manufactured locally is a load of nonsense. It is just another excuse for some BEE buddies to make a load of money on the back of the taxpayer.
    Economically and technically it makes sense to use a proven technology where the economies of scale also means you’ll be able to save millions, if not billions on the subsidised set-top boxes.

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