What about competition?

The communications and broadcasting regulator has entrenched MultiChoice’s monopoly and missed an opportunity to introduce competition to the broadcasting sector, say stakeholders.

However, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) says allowing the new subscription broadcasters, licensed in 2007, to offer channels would give them an unfair advantage.

An industry insider who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity said Icasa is “entrenching MultiChoice’s monopoly on yet another platform” by allocating spectrum space for digital broadcasters to M-Net and none of the other subscription broadcasters.

The insider said that licenses were technologically neutral so there should be nothing stopping them from offering services over any platform, including digital television.

However, Icasa councilor Robert Nkuna said that allowing new entrants to broadcast a digital channel when current broadcasters would have to meet costs for both analogue and digital broadcasts would be unfair.

M-Net, SABC and e.tv are all expected to use the digital migration process to offer additional channels to consumers.  However, this will be incredibly costly and, with the public broadcaster cash-strapped and begging for a bailout from government, it is unclear how they will afford to do this.

Icasa allocated three multiplexes earlier this month when it published its digital terrestrial television regulations.

A multiplex is a network of frequencies packaged together for distribution purposes, for example, SABC’s three channels could be bundled together during distribution and would then be separated by the set-top box.

The first multiplex has been allocated for public and community broadcasters and will be used for the three SABC channels and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a community television station from the Eastern Cape.

The second has been allocated for free-to-air broadcasters and will be used by e.tv, which has been allocated 60% of the multiplex.

The third has been allocated to subscription television broadcasters, with 50% allocated to M-Net.

Nkuna said multiplex 3 does not actually exist and Icasa has given M-Net 12 months to move all its broadcasts onto one of two spectrum frequencies it holds.

The freed-up spectrum that this would produce will be named multiplex 4 and the new subscription broadcasters will be able to apply to broadcast new channels on this multiplex.

Nkuna said Icasa was eager to introduce competition and this was why it was busy preparing a competition framework for broadcasting.  However, he said that competition had to be introduced in the correct manner.

“These new satellite broadcasters are the ones that are complaining, but they have been licensed since 2007,” said Nkuna, implying that they should have started to offer services by now.

The M&G understands that the National Association of Broadcasters will oppose the new digital terrestrial television regulations and The National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc) plans to serve court papers on Icasa in relation to the regulations.

Nafcoc said the digital terrestrial television regulations will extend MultiChoice’s monopoly in the South African TV market.

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What about competition?