Vested interests opposed to ‘Net access

In presenting the case for enabling data-access capabilities in the government’s upcoming tender for subsidised set-top boxes for digital terrestrial television, the SA Communications Forum asserted that this proposition will not – and should not – delay the digital migration process. By Muzi Makhaye.

As manufacturers, we care what the set-top box specification says. We can actually produce any box to any specification. However, we remain duty-bound not to stand by idly when there is a deliberate distortion of facts, such as is happening now on the issue of the “return path” that would allow consumers to access the Internet on their TVs.

This is not a new issue; so much so that the set-top box specification that was published in 2009, the SA Bureau of Standards’ Sans 862, had catered entirely for the data access and a return path.

As far back as 2008, government, in its various ministries, was the one that first made a call for a return path to be included in the set-top boxes. It cited the provision of e-government services, such as health, education and home affairs, among others, as an added-value function in the boxes.

That is how the term “return path” became used and ultimately made it into the 2009 specification. It would, therefore, be unfair for anyone to claim that the inclusion of the data access capability in the set-to box spec is a fresh call. It is also ill-advised to suggest that this inclusion is instigated for by “some” manufacturers. We find it preposterous for people to now insinuate that the SA Communications Forum has belatedly woken up to suggest its inclusion.

So, what has happened between 2009 and 2012, you may ask, that has led to the contested data-access capability to be left out of the current specification?

First, the futile debate about the European DVB-T standard and the Japanese-Brazilian concoction, ISDB-T, ensued from September 2009. This threw a spanner in the digital broadcasting migration works and adversely affected manufacturers to various degrees. By the time the standards dispute was settled, SA had moved on from DVB-T to a newer generation, DVB-T2. This effectively rendered Sans 862 obsolete.

The second reason we do not have data access included in the specification is because M-Net and MultiChoice mounted a strong campaign against its inclusion in the specification. Obviously, it is not in their interests to participate in a process of creating potential competition for their business models.

The M-Net/MultiChoice standpoint is therefore not surprising; rather, the lack of counter views from the SABC is baffling. The public broadcaster stands to lose out at the absence of data access in the set-top boxes. M-Net/DStv decoders have the same Ethernet port, whose inclusion in the terrestrial decoders they so vehemently (and successfully) opposed. If anything, that should make anyone who follows the debate, including TechCentral’s Craig Wilson, think twice about the sincerity of some naysayers.

The third thing that happened, leading to the exclusion of the data access in the newer Sans 864 specification, was that some anonymous industry experts doubled as designers of the set-top box, outside of monitoring by the SA Bureau of Standards. Using their access to the media, these experts continued to make untested claims for and on behalf of the so-called “poorest of the poor”.

The clear intention of these experts for keeping the poor on the wrong side of the digital divide and in their abject poverty, by deploying substandard technologies, is bothersome. What these self-made spokespeople of the poor omit to say is that these communities are poor but not stupid. They will not accept any substandard technology imposed on them. Despite their circumstances, the poor will revolt against substandard services. We do not want to add the digital migration process and access to the Internet to the list of complaints.

SA has policies that aspire to grow our knowledge economy. Let’s not allow vested interests to stunt this growth. Africans generally, and South Africans specifically, do not follow global trends when it comes to technology consumption patterns. We concur with the SA Communications Forum that we must give all the people the option to access the Internet via the digital set-top boxes from the comfort of their homes.

  • Muzi Makhaye is CEO of set-top box manufacturer ABT. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily shared by TechCentral.

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  • Greg Mahlknecht

    >What these self-made spokespeople of the poor omit to say is that these communities are poor but not stupid. They will not accept any substandard technology imposed on them. Despite their circumstances, the poor will revolt against substandard services.

    And you don’t think that the return path solution on a decoder is a substandard solution?  I have to assume the worst in the device capabilities, because no concrete examples of proposed hardware specifications have been put forward – if the STB manufacturers have already planned for this return path, they must know what’s going to into this box they’ve planned – CPU, RAM, Storage, OS.  Perhaps a little more facts and figures from the STB side of the argument would help.

    >We concur with the SA Communications Forum that we must give all the people the option to access the Internet via the digital set-top boxes from the comfort of their homes.

    Of course you do.  You’re making money from it.  Do you support what I feel is a superior solution of a STB and standalone internet access device, like the Vodacom WebBox, which seems that a STB+that will cost about the same as a STB with return path built in?  Additionally, you can get a 17″ monitor in in the region of R700.  I’d support the government partly subsidizing that too, and give the poorest of the poor a proper Internet solution.  Come to think of it, that’d actually work out cheaper than the poor person having to buy the device to plug into their return path port.

    >> The clear intention of these experts for keeping the poor on the wrong side of the digital divide and in their abject poverty

    Actually, I feel a half-arsed solution like STB+Return path will do that.  I wouldn’t wish surfing the web on a CRT and decoder on anyone.  That’s no way to grow a knowledge economy.  A capable, dedicated access device that possibly has the ability of working offline (off the top of my head: the webbox is android based, one could get a standalone wikipedia app and have it available in the household at all times) is what you need.

    We only have one chance of trying to jumpstart the knowledge economy you speak of.  Let’s do it right, and not by trying to see how many corners we can cut and how many birds we can kill with one STB.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    >>and these CAN for a very small incremental cost provide access to the internet

    There’s still no evidence of this.  This line has been repeated again and again, but I’ve yet to see an actual example.  I went and looked, and it seems to add a GSM return path + beef up hardware to be able to run a browser would double the cost of the STB.  So far, nobody’s disputed this, but I’m happy to be corrected by an actual expert.  Just adding an ethernet port is useless, as the device needed to connect the STB to the net will cost the same as the STB anyway.

    >> AND in addition buy and subsidise second devices and monitors for poor people in South Africa – for another couple of billion Rand

    From the little research I’ve done, the 2nd dedicated device subsidy + dumb STB would come in at the same price as a STB with GSM return path, so that device is “free”.  The 2nd screen was just an idea to “do it right”.    And yes, why not spend more.  If people are really serious about building a knowledge economy, why are they trying to find the cheapest way to do provide the bare minimum?  Surely you should rather find the RIGHT way of doing it, then work backwards to find a way to make it reality? 

    >> Adding internet access to the STB is the best choice

    No.  It’s the easy choice.  The lazy choice.  It’s by no means the BEST choice.    I started out on a ZX Spectrum on a CRT set.  I know how bad it is.  And that was at 40 text columns with big fonts.  I want the people entering the knowledge economy to have better than that.  I don’t want them to have a solution that was substandard 25 years ago.

  • Set Top Box Users Group

    Government, and so many other countries, realised the potential of internet
    connected set top boxes, Smart Television and mobile TV. There are many DVB-T2
    decoders with internet and/or return path on the market.
     
    The benefit of internet connected media exceeds the little extra cost per box
    by far. It must be noted that the R700 can become R550 to R650 now that prices
    had come down.
     
    SABS worked on all permutations of these set top boxes. There should be no
    delay to include internet to the boxes.
     
    The function of the Vodafone WebBox can not be directly compared to what can
    be done with a return path and/or internet on a television set (Smart TV’s) or
    set top boxes.
     
    Services delivered via a SmartTV (as the ones you can buy at any Games,
    Dions, Hi Fi Installations) for years now are completely different to browsing
    the web on TV via Vodafone WebBox gadgets.
     
    Think about e-Education on connected televisions!! If SA can benefit from
    e-education, e-health, e-government alone the benefits will be massive.
     
    Specifications of DVB-T2 boxes are available. SA is not first to use DVB-T2
    boxes with internet access. You can get all the info from STB manufacturers.
     
    The graphic user interface of Smart TV’s and set top boxes is so different to
    what you see on your PC or laptop. The television interface has been designed
    for televisions – and not for laptops and PC’s.
     
    And it is definitely not only about surfing the internet on your TV. It is
    far more. The scope of connected televisions is changing the way people – and
    broadcasters – are using TV’s.
     
    The benefit to people without data bundles is massive.
     
    Most countries are now opting for connected set top boxes. The Minister made
    the right decision to go for STB’s with Internet – you will see!!
     
    Set Top Box User Group

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    >>There are many DVB-T2  decoders with internet and/or return path on the market.

    At the risk of sounding like a stuck record – examples, please?

    >>The function of the Vodafone WebBox can not be directly compared to what can be done with a return path and/or internet on a television set (Smart TV’s) or set top boxes.

    Why not?  Another bold statement without an explanation. 

    >>The benefit to people without data bundles is massive.

    So these connected boxes can be used for free, without the need for a further data costs?  Please explain? 

    Or are these “connected boxes” using the GSM/etc modem for the uplink, and using the DVB channel as the downlink, like the old Sentech satellite internet solution?  That didn’t work very well – it got saturated with a few thousand users.  I don’t see something like that having a hope in hell of scaling to millions of users.

    Does anybody actually know anything, or have any facts about these mysterious “STB with return paths”?

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