Another spanner in the digital TV works

2013-12-20 15:10

South Africa’s migration to digital television is set to face further delays as a group of broadcasters and decoder manufacturers, including the SABC and MultiChoice, have called for the Cabinet decision to include an access control system in the decoders to be withdrawn.

The parties, which also include the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic Components (Namec) and the Association of Community TV in South Africa (ACTSA), said in a joint statement that the decision was legally questionable.

The decision for all digital terrestrial television (DTT) decoders to have an access control system was made by Cabinet and announced a few weeks ago, however the policy amendment stated that use of the access control system would not be mandatory.

A set-top box is a decoder that converts digital television signals into analogue signals so that old analogue television sets can still receive the signals after the switchover to digital terrestrial broadcasting.

The reason for converting from analogue television to digital television is that digital television uses much less spectrum frequency to transmit, which means we can have more television channels and also spectrum can be freed for use in rolling out Wi-Fi broadband.

For more than a year, South Africa’s digital migration of television signals has been stalled by a fierce debate about whether or not to include an access control system in the decoders.

When South Africa’s digital migration finally happens, all South Africans are going to have to get a decoder to watch their new digital television channels.

The debate around “conditional access” is simply about whether that decoder will be “smart” or “dumb” – and based on that decision – how much it will cost and what services it will offer.

A smart box will allow for an electronic programming guide, for broadcasters to collect user data and to deliver e-government services.

A dumb box works just like your normal TV, with no special features.

MultiChoice questioned the legality of the proposed amendments to the broadcasting digital migration policy this week, arguing that the high court judgment in September 2012, in the case brought against then communications minister Dina Pule, which dealt with the management of conditional access, stated that the minister could not make decisions around conditional access.

“No person is above the law and we hope the minister will ultimately act in accordance with the decision of the court, rather than inviting unnecessary litigation that will continue to delay the migration from analogue to digital,” said Calvo Mawela, MultiChoice’s head of regulatory affairs.

This point was reinforced by Namec president Keith Thabo, who said: “It is our view that the minister runs the risk of being in contempt of court in our reading of the draft policy.

“We urge the minister to withdraw the draft policy in its entirety and call on him to desist from making amendments that make pronouncements on decoder control.”

Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the SABC’s acting chief operating officer, said the SABC was still engaging with the minister and would not be involved in a legal challenge to the policy amendments.

“Our position is based on the fact that the SABC has a mandate to make its services available to all South African citizens,” said Motsoeneng. “Our services, both television and radio have always been on a free-to-air basis and going forward this will also be the case for DTT.”

Motsoeneng also argued that the access control would drive up the cost of the box a lot more than the R20 currently being discussed.

“Government can develop policy, but they cannot dictate what extras should go in the decoder,” said Motsoeneng. “We are saying government shouldn’t pay for all the extras.”

MultiChoice CEO Imtiaz Patel said the R20 figure was not correct and suggested that it would cost hundreds of rands.

ACTSA’s Colin Mackenzie said conditional access would not be in the interest of the public broadcaster and community broadcasters, but only in the interests of commercial broadcasters.

Department of Communications statement on digital television set-top box ‘issue’

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