M-net fires salvo in digital TV battle

M-net has taken out a full page advertisement in the Sunday papers, including the Sunday Times, to argue against the inclusion of encryption in the decoder-like set-top box (STB) for digital terrestrial television (DTT) in South Africa.

This comes a month after an “open letter” from MultiChoice to Minister of Communications Yunus Carrim lead to a war of words between the Ministry and MultiChoice over so-called “STB control”.

Towards the end of last year (2013), Cabinet approved a policy adjustment brought by the Communications Ministry to try and resolve the battle over STB control.

Under the amendments, broadcasters could choose whether to encrypt their signal and use STB control. Those that do choose this option would have to pay for it themselves.

However, the policy change mandated no change in South Africa’s STB specification, SANS 862:2012 (Edition 2). The national standard would still require that an STB control system be built into the decoders.

Households that receive their television signal using a standard antenna rather than a satellite dish will need an STB when (if?) South Africa migrates from the old analogue TV broadcasting standard to DTT.

Why all the fighting?

In its advertisement, M-net asks “Why is there a fight about the STB?”

It answers this with a table (pictured) which argues that an STB with control built-in is expensive, complicated, and unnecessary; while without encryption it is cheap and simple.

M-net STB Control why is there a fight
M-net STB Control: Why is there a fight? (click for full ad)

Partial truth

While that is certainly a reason for the fight, it is by no means the only reason.

The dispute appears to boil down to a few essential points that broadcasters do not seem to be able to resolve:

  1. STBs with control are more expensive than those without;
  2. Government will subsidise 70% of the cost of an STB for the poorest 5 million households in South Africa;
  3. Crucially, this control-enabled STB will essentially be used to subsidise the entry of free-to-air broadcasters (particularly E-tv) into the subscription TV market (MultiChoice/Naspers are unhappy about this);
  4. Removal of STB control from the spec will likely result in a court case from Control proponents (e.g E-tv) that government is more likely to lose than if detractors (e.g. Naspers) took them to court, according to Minister Carrim;

Also debated in the battle are the effects of STB control on the local electronics manufacturing sector, with some arguing that its inclusion will give it a leg up. MultiChoice and its supporters disagree.

Another concern is that mandated STB control will discourage TV manufacturers from building digital tuners into new television sets, like analogue tuners are currently built into them.

Hisense, LG, Samsung, and Sony were asked for comment in this regard in mid-March 2014, but have yet to respond.

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M-net fires salvo in digital TV battle