TV wars: Who’s boxing clever?

2014-03-23 14:00

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We’re in the middle of a TV war that erupted into a massive public spat. At its heart is something called an ‘encrypted set-top box’. Say what? Lost? So are we. Ferial Haffajee quizzed MultiChoice boss Imtiaz Patel and Communications Minister Yunus Carrim to find out what it means for the average viewer

Imtiaz Patel. Picture: Chris ricco/Backpagepix

Imtiaz Patel, MultiChoice group CEO

Is it really about the consumer? I’m one. How does your position benefit me?

If you have an analogue TV, you will have to buy a set-top box that will convert the digital signal back to analogue so your old TV can “see” the digital signal [assuming you are not subsidised because you do not fall into the category of “poor household”].

Until such time that you buy a new TV, which will automatically receive the digital signals, you no longer need the box or replace it. But if the box is able to encrypt the signals as the new policy proposes, you will always have to buy a box, even though you may upgrade to a digital TV?…?and when your box breaks in three to four years time, you will have to buy another box [completely unnecessarily].

My TV set is digital enabled. Why would I need another set-top box to receive digital transmission?

No, you don’t need a set-top box unless the minister implements his current policy?–?in which case you will have to buy a box for forever and a day.

It feels like we will never migrate to digital and free up bandwidth for better communications. Are you not holding the process to ransom?

No. The current policy is going to delay the process even more than a simple amendment of the policy to ensure we do the right thing.

The M-word: monopoly. The minister is a communist?–?he is not going to agree with big companies that have enjoyed monopolies and will side with the Davids over the Goliaths. Do you see his point?

What is his point? We don’t get it. Name-calling will not resolve the problem. Is digital migration about targeting MultiChoice and favouring others or about releasing the digital dividend for broadband as smoothly and as quickly as possible?

Big print advertisements are delightful for an editor of a Sunday paper. But does it mean dialogue has failed?

Not at all. We remain open and urge dialogue. This affects the consumers and they should enter the dialogue.

Where to from here?

Constructive engagement with a genuinely open mind-set.

Yunus Carrim. Picture: Herman Verwey/Foto24

Yunus Carrim, minister of communications

Minister, is big always bad? You seem to have a predisposition against big companies purely because they are big. Am I right?

Oh, please! You’re echoing Naspers’ line. They’ve run out of arguments. The SA Bureau of Standards [SABS] says it’ll take a minimum of 34 weeks to amend the standard to drop control – but only if there’s consensus in the industry.

Also, we need to protect our local manufacturing industry and give space to emerging black manufacturers. There are also legal threats from those wanting control. No, big is not always bad.

But it’s just not on for MultiChoice to have 98% of the pay-TV viewers. It’s 20 years into our democracy – we have to deracialise the economy and encourage competition. Our policy is consistent with the [ANC’s] Mangaung resolutions on transformation in the broadcasting industry and ANC and government policies on the need to encourage competition. But in a fair and balanced way.

I’m a consumer – in fact, a big consumer – of TV. How does your stance on set-top boxes and encryption benefit me?

It isn’t my personal whim. It’s a Cabinet decision taken in 2008 and amended in 2012 and 2013. It’s an insult to Cabinet members to suggest, as some do, that they blindly followed like sheep the positions of a marginal minister like me. And we speak of “control”, not any specific form like “encryption”. Control will, over time, give you more channels, greater diversity of content, greater competition and cheaper pay-TV.

Control will protect you against cheap, imported set-top boxes that will not work properly, as happened in Mauritius and other countries. Dropping control will delay digital migration considerably and leave you with limited viewing choice. But benefits to the poor and emerging black manufacturers, and the jobs created, will also benefit your country and therefore you too. Also, radio frequency spectrum will be released for mobile broadband and other services and, over time, the cost to communicate will be reduced.

From where I’m sitting, it looks like it will benefit another TV company that is pushing for encryption?...

But I’ve dealt with the many benefits. Broadcasters are now free to use the control system in the set-top box or not. Those who use it, however, will have to pay the full cost of it.

Consistent with a previous court judgment, we cannot prescribe to broadcasters to not use control any more than we can prescribe to them to use it.

The national budget is not my personal moneybox that I can use to benefit anyone I choose. That would be criminal anyway. And can you imagine in these tight budgetary times Cabinet agreeing to fund a broadcaster other than the SABC? At least 15 other countries, mainly in Africa, are going for a similar system to ours.

True, most of them don’t have it in policy but unlike other African countries, we have it in government policy because South Africa has a local electronics manufacturing sector and subsidy for the indigent to protect.

Until recently, MultiChoice accepted the control system in the SABS standard. The set-top box control is actually an “open access” system so MultiChoice is free to use it too. But it refuses to because it doesn’t suit its commercial interests. So are we to shape the country’s policies to suit MultiChoice?

I own a digitally enabled TV set [along with millions of fellow South Africans]. Why would I want another decoder and dish at my home? My house already looks like a spaceship.

Millions of South Africans don’t own digital TV sets. The SABS has not even set the standard for these TV sets yet. But if you do have a digital

TV set that complies with the European standard, you will not need a set-top box. But millions of poor people won’t be able to buy digital TVs for a long time, and they’ll need set-top boxes.

Is there a way out of further delays in digital migration, which is hindering our progress as a nation?

Negotiations began before 2008 and continued in a variety of forms until last Tuesday. The doors of the facilitators remain open, but we need to move on in the meantime. Yes, government is partly to blame but right now, we are ready to go. It’s the broadcasters who are sabotaging progress with their endless feuding. None of them care for the country’s interests.

What about the state [and perhaps MultiChoice] clubbing together and getting an exchange programme going – all people with analogue TVs exchange for a digital set and then the problem will be moot, right?

If only! Digital TVs are too expensive. Set-top boxes cost a fraction by comparison. But hey, if MultiChoice wants to fund this since it insists it is more concerned about the consumers and poor than the ANC, great!

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