Cellphone TV: let the market decide

Communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri’s budget vote speech in parliament last week has been cautiously welcomed by industry. Unbundling the local loop and allowing Internet service providers to build their own networks, independently of Telkom, will ensure the market becomes more competitive and that prices fall.

But there are aspects to Matsepe-Casaburri’s speech that are troubling. Most notably is her decision that mobile broadcasting – digital television delivered to cellphone screens – will be provided on a sinlge network with national coverage using a technology known as DVB-H (digital video broadcasting – handheld). Frankly, this is the wrong approach.

Matsepe-Casaburri said in her speech that it was important to create an enabling environment for the development of mobile broadcasting. Unfortunately, by limiting to one the number of networks that will be licensed, and by prescribing the technology that will be used, the minister’s decision could have the opposite effect of what she intends.

Admittedly, Matsepe-Casaburri wants the network to be operated on the basis of open and nondiscriminatory access principles, which (presumably) means that third-party content providers will be given affordable and equitable access to it. But markets are far better at driving down prices and, more importantly, at determining technology standards.

By mandating that SA adopt only DVB-H, she is precluding, another mobile broadcasting technology DMB (digital multimedia broadcasting), which is popular in Asia and, increasingly, in Europe. There’s a chance that DMB could eventually trounce DVB-H in the global standards war. Where would that leave SA?

Politicians should not choose sides in technology wars. Matsepe-Casaburri should let the market decide, lest SA spend millions of rand on a modern-day equivalent of Betamax.

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Cellphone TV: let the market decide