Smart box, dumb box. What’s the digital terrestrial television fuss about?

2013-12-04 08:00

Today, Cabinet will announce its decision on conditional access of set-top boxes. Lloyd Gedye tells us what it means.

When South Africa’s digital migration finally happens, the nation’s TV viewers are all going to have to get a set-top box to watch their new digital television channels.

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.

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

For almost a full year, South Africa’s digital migration of television signals has been stalled by a fiercely contested debate about whether or not to include an access control system in the set-top box.

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

Today, Cabinet will be announcing its decision on conditional access, but it is unlikely to be the final word on the matter, with South Africa’s broadcasters indicating they will legally challenge the decision if it goes against their position.

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, so no special features.

Smart boxes are more expensive and with government subsidising set-top boxes for the poorest 5 million households, this is naturally a big consideration.

However, there is also the issue of where the set-top boxes are assembled.

If Cabinet decides to go for a dumb box, then the chances are a lot of set-top boxes will be imported. However if Cabinet chooses a smart box, then they are more likely to be assembled in South Africa, boosting the sector and creating jobs.

With many vested interests on either side of the smart-dumb box debate, it’s no wonder that the decision has been so contested.

As things currently stand, e.tv wants a smart box, so that the digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform can be a rival platform to DStv.

MultiChoice wants a dumb box as it does not want the DTT set-top boxes enabled so that a broadcaster can offer pay TV services on the platform.

They argue that government should not be subsidising set-top boxes that will give pay TV rivals a leg up.

The SABC also want a dumb box, but their position changed sometime in March 2013 and it is unclear why.

MultiChoice and the SABC have gone as far as inking a contract, which prevents the SABC from having its 24-hour news channel and entertainment channel on a box that has conditional access.

This means that if it is decided that the DTT set-top box has a control mechanism, then the SABC will not be able to roll out its two new channels on the DTT platform.

Both e.tv and MultiChoice have threatened legal action if the decision on set-top box control goes against their position, so for the last few months Communications Minister Yunus Carrim has overseen negotiations that resulted in a deadlock.

Carrim appeared before the parliamentary portfolio committee of communications on November 5 this year and declared that the SABC could not dictate policy to government.

He was referring to the MultiChoice-SABC contract.

However, he argued that as a serious stakeholder in the broadcasting sector, the SABC’s views needed to be taken seriously.

During the meeting, Carrim flagged the issues that needed to be considered:

» What would best protect the electronic industry and create jobs?

» How could they ensure indigenous entrepreneurs benefit from the roll-out of set-top boxes?

» How could the department of communication allow new entrants to enter the pay TV sector to challenge a monopoly but not at the expense of the set-top box subsidy?

» What was the fastest, most effective, simplest way to move forward, given they were so far behind schedule with the June 2015 deadline?

» Which legal challenge was likely to be less strenuous?

The minister told the committee that the set-top box issue was too big for the minister and deputy minister, and must go to Cabinet for it to decide.

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