The impasse that has prevented South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital broadcasting has been solved, Business Day reported on 4 February 2015.
According to the report, the ANC confirmed at its lekgotla last week that an earlier Cabinet decision on set-top box control must be implemented.
The Cabinet decision referred to was a solution recommended by former Minister of Communications Yunus Carrim in December 2013, which lets broadcasters decide for themselves whether they want to encrypt their signals.
However, Cabinet also decided that the government would use a control mechanism on the set-top boxes (STBs) it subsidises for the poorest households in South Africa.
Set-top boxes are decoder-like devices that South Africans will need to receive the new digital television signal.
Cabinet’s decision to include a control feature in its STBs means that the government’s choice of encryption would essentially become a de facto standard that all digital TV STBs in South Africa would have to support.
The reason the government may wish to implement STB control on subsidised boxes is to prevent the taxpayer-supported decoders from being bought up cheaply and resold elsewhere in the world.
STB control also allows a level of standard enforcement, preventing cheap, and potentially below-spec boxes, from flooding the market.
However, not everyone was happy with Carrim’s recommendation and Cabinet’s decision. MultiChoice and one of its business partners, Namec, were vocal opponents.
MultiChoice argued that the government should not use taxpayer money to subsidise the entry of broadcasters such as E-tv into the pay-TV market.
It also said that an STB with a control mechanism would end up costing the South African consumer more at the end of the day.
In spite of this ongoing dispute between MultiChoice, E-tv, and the government, Business Day reports that the ANC has instructed Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi to take its decision to the Cabinet lekgotla which is currently being held.
Update: Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Service Marian Shinn has issued a statement on the reports that the ANC has come out in support of STB control for government-subsidised boxes:
The Democratic Alliance welcomes media reports that the ANC has opted for encryption for the subsidised set-top boxes (STBs) that will enable five million identified poor households to receive free-to-air digital television broadcasts.
This decision, however, still needs to be approved by Cabinet.
The decision to encrypt STBs puts the process of digital migration back to where it was a year ago, before President Jacob Zuma split the former Department of Communications (DoC) in two, causing a turf war over the process between two cabinet ministers after the 2014 general election.
Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Siyabonga Cwele, was in a position last July to have the revised BDM policy – crafted by the previous DoC Minister Yunus Carrim – approved by Cabinet. This was stalled as Communications Minister, Faith Muthambi, insisted that BDM was her responsibility.
Late last year a legislative tangle was created as clauses of various acts were shuffled between the two ministries, giving executive authority over anything to do with broadcasting to the Minister of Communications.
One is left to speculate what vested interests were at play to cause the year-long delay in approving minor adjustments to the BDM policy. It caused incalculable financial costs to the broadcasting sector, the electronics manufacturers who have invested in anticipation of being included in the programme, and the internet-based sector that will expand once the broadcast spectrum (TV white space) that is hogged by analogue broadcasting is released.
In a rush to ensure some subsidised STBs are available by the global digital TV switchover on June 17, the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) – which reports to the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services – issued invitations late last year to tender for the manufacture of the subsidised STBs. Bids by 17 companies were submitted on January 6 2015 and the winning bidders should be announced by April.
The DA has maintained that the call for bids was legally dubious. This is based on the grounds that the call for tender requested costings of digital terrestrial television STBs with and without controlled access, which contravenes the BDM policy of 2008 that stated STBs must all be encrypted.
We have also raised our concerns at the delay in drafting regulatory standards for STBs for Direct to the Home (DTH) broadcasts.
The DA will continue to watch this subsidised STB process carefully. It is vital that the estimated revenue of R4,3 billion, collected via levies imposed on electronic communications network licence holders, proceeds without corruption and in the best interests of the growth of a diversity of free-to-air broadcast platforms.