South Africa held ransom by broadcasters: Carrim

The Ministry of Communications has issued a statement in which it responded to broadcasters aggrieved by its decision regarding conditional access in digital terrestrial television (DTT) set-top boxes (STBs).

The Ministry reiterates that broadcasters may decide whether they want to use encryption on their channels or implement a control system on their decoder-like STBs.

Minister of Communications, Yunus Carrim, also explained the rationale behind the decision at some length.

Particularly, he said that they considered dropping STB control altogether, but were confronted with a number of obstacles:

  1. Changing the SANS 862 specification for STBs at the South African Bureau of Standards would take an average of 6 months;
  2. Concerns that the SA market would be flooded by cheap, low quality DVB-T2 STB imports;
  3. Concerns over possible legal challenges by free-to-air broadcasters that want to use STB Control, and manufacturers that have already invested in certification for their STB designs.

Legal threats

Carrim said several parties to the dispute threatened them with legal action, so they sought to tread a careful path.

E-tv previously interdicted former Minister Dina Pule when she appointed Sentech to manage STB control in South Africa. The High Court ruled in favour of E-tv.

MultiChoice, an opponent to E-tv in this dispute, has used the ruling to say that Carrim may not prescribe the use of STB control in South Africa.

However, Carrim said that lawyers whom they consulted said that “government has the right to make policy on STB control but it cannot prescribe the supplier, the operator of the control system, the type of control system to be used or how it should be managed.”

According to Carrim they have stayed within the bounds of the ruling and added that they have also not referred to conditional access or encryption as methods of implementing STB control.

“We are saying that broadcasters are free to decide whether they want to use control or not,” Carrim said. “There is no compulsion.”

Carrim said that given the above reasoning, they can’t see how they are going against the court order.

Yunus Carrim at SATNAC 2013
Yunus Carrim at SATNAC 2013

SA held ransom

“For a long while, the broadcasters have been feuding about whether to have a control system or not,” Carrim said. “Both former Minister Pule and I encouraged the broadcasters to arrive at consensus, but to no avail.”

Carrim said that during 2013 the Ministry tried once again to foster a measure of consensus, but, with the parties refusing to make any compromises at all, the facilitators reached an impasse.

Government then shaped its policy taking into account what all the parties had to say, Carrim said.

“What else could we do? The country could not be endlessly held to ransom by the feuding of the broadcasters,” he added.

SABC siding with MultiChoice “regrettable”

“It is regrettable that the SABC as a public broadcaster is siding with commercial entities and taking this approach instead of engaging with the representatives of its shareholder,” Carrim said.

Carrim went on to add that the agreement between the SABC and MultiChoice will not be affected by the Ministry’s decision.

The controversial agreement involves the SABC’s 24-hour news channel on the DStv platform, and among the terms are that the public broadcaster would not encrypt any of its channels on DTT platforms.

“Our advice is that the commercial agreement only deals with the encryption of SABC channels and not with whether the STBs that are used for viewing SABC services have a control system or not,” Carrim said. “So the SABC is free not to use the control system in the transmission and management of its channels, and its agreement with MultiChoice will not be affected,” he added.

Financial implications

Regarding the financial implications of their decision, Carrim said that the cost to government of STB control will be about R20 per box.

Broadcasters that want to use government’s control system will have to pay the government for costs related to the control system, Carrim said.

He added that the costs for government’s STB control has to be related to the benefits to the local electronics industry and emerging entrepreneurs, and in terms of jobs.

“The South African government, like most governments, has invested in a variety of ways for industrial returns,” Carrim said.

Carrim said that they are also acutely aware of the need to de-racialise and transform the South African economy.

“Our approach certainly caters for emerging entrepreneurs in ways that are consistent with government’s BBBEE policies, legislation and regulations,” Carrim said.

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South Africa held ransom by broadcasters: Carrim