Conditional access rocks the digital TV boat

2013-04-21 14:00

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Clashes of opinion at this week’s electronic manufacturers conference show the industry and government are nowhere close to resolving their differences.

“This conditional access (technology in a decoder that enables broadcaster to provide or withhold viewer access) is witchcraft,” cried the voice from the back of the Park Inn hotel function room this week.

In the room were the who’s who of South Africa’s electronic manufacturers, department of communications officials as well as senior members of the SABC and Sentech.

All at this conference hosted by the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic Components (Namec) want a slice of the pie when the state rolls out 5 million decoders for the digital terrestrial television migration process.

The voice from the back of the room belonged to a representative of Plalo Electronics. Plalo Electronics is upset with the form of decoder control, which Namec argues should not be included in the subsidised decoders government wants to roll out in the migration.

The department of communications and want conditional access included.

Stakeholders said this week the SABC was also behind the decision to include conditional access, but the broadcaster failed to respond to City Press’ questions.

Namec and M-Net do not want conditional access.

The dispute over conditional access follows legal proceedings between the department of communications and

Namec argues that adding conditional access to the decoders will drastically raise the costs of the boxes.

It also says those pushing for it do so because they wanted to launch pay TV channels on the digital terrestrial television platform.

They further argued that the accreditation costs that manufacturers will have to carry for conditional access is prohibitive and will limit the number of black manufacturers who can take part.

Namec member Vijay Panday said introducing conditional access to prevent the boxes being transported across South Africa’s borders for use outside the country was like using “a bazooka to kill a mosquito”.

“Conditional access is primarily used for pay TV operations,” said Panday, adding Namec prefers a software solution for box security.

Minister Dina Pule’s adviser, Roy Kruger, told Panday the cost increase for conditional access was being overstated.

Kruger said the department’s mandate was to include more players in the sector.

“We want to use digital terrestrial television as a way to get new pay TV players into the market,” said Kruger.

Bronwyn Keene-Young,’s chief operating officer, told City Press the broadcaster was not insisting on conditional access hardware or a smart card in the decoder, but a software option. She said this battle over conditional access was actually a battle of the platforms.

She said if there are not strict standards, then this could lead to a substandard free-to-air broadcasting platform, which can’t compete with MultiChoice’s DStv.

Keene-Young said if the department of communications removed all references to conditional access from the policy, as suggested by Namec, it would lodge legal proceedings.

M-Net’s director of regulatory and legal affairs, Karen Willenberg, says it is unclear why the inclusion of conditional access was necessary, particularly when it is so out of line with international best practice.

“No other major television market in the world has gone this route,” said Willenberg.

“It gets even more confusing when you start unpacking the costs – software royalties, management services, certification, call centres – and if the system is hacked, chances are all the decoders will have to be replaced.

“The truth is these systems have a singular purpose, to switch people on when they have paid their subscription and to switch them off when they don’t,” said Willenberg.

In May last year, Pule appointed Sentech as the decoder control supplier.

However, challenged this decision in court and won the case, with the court ruling that free-to-air broadcasters and the SABC would decide on the vendor for conditional access, which has led to the current impasse.

It could take between six and 18 months to get the first boxes in store from the time companies get permission to manufacture boxes and getting them on retailer shelves.

Pule, who addressed the conference, told City Press that the dispute between Namec and the department of communications was minor.

She said that other key concerns were decoder security and the need to promote the entry of new broadcasters to help transform the sector.

What is digital?

What is digital terrestrial television and why do we need to migrate our television signal?

Currently, Sentech distributes South Africa’s television via an analogue signal, but we need to switch that over to digital.

That is because radio spectrum, which is used to deliver television signals, is a very scarce resource and can deliver various broadcasting and wireless broadband products to customers.

At present, South Africa’s terrestrial free-to-air broadcasters are sitting on a choice radio spectrum that could be used to deliver wireless broadband services.

With analogue, each spectrum channel, or multiplex, is used to deliver a single analogue television channel.

With digital television, the multiplex can deliver up to eight channels.

So digital migration will not only allow the opportunity to offer more television channels, but it will allow spectrum to be freed up for use by wireless broadband players.

Why the urgency?

When a country makes the switch from analogue to digital, there are two important dates.

The first is the date on which digital TV signals are launched and the second is when the analogue signal is turned off.

The period between the two is known as dual illumination, during which both digital and analogue signals run.

This period is the time frame within which the country needs to convert to digital.

Government has already accepted we are unlikely to meet the June 1 2015 switch-off date for analogue signals.

As a signatory to the International Telecommunication Union, South Africa has agreed to meet this global analogue switch-off date.

After this date, countries’ television signals will not be protected against interference.

The government has set aside R2.45?billion to subsidise the boxes for 5 million of the poorest of South Africa’s 12 million television households, bringing down the estimated price from R700 to R300.

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