Set-top box policy here to stay

‘I’m a bit confused. People normally like free things,” said recently appointed Communications Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane about the slow uptake of state-sponsored set-top boxes (STBs) for the poorest of the poor, ahead of the global June 2019 deadline for migration to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

South Africa is woefully behind on the process and Kubayi-Ngubane says the deadline is her most pressing concern, not the matter of changing the state’s STB policy.

This matter came under the spotlight again this week, after the DA alleged that pay TV broadcaster MultiChoice had, in effect, paid the SABC “kickbacks” to get STB policy changed to unencrypted, simple boxes that will, it is argued, give them a competitive edge against newcomers in the market in the future.

Kubayi-Ngubane said she was unlikely to press for encrypted, smart boxes. “My main concern is that the encryption battle has dragged the whole DTT project,” she told City Press on Friday.

“We have between now and January to indicate we want policy change,” she said, making it clear that she will most likely stick to former communications minister Faith Muthambi’s controversial decision to opt for simple STBs – in doing so, overturning her predecessor Yunus Carrim’s decision to go with smart boxes.

“Yes, in meetings some people in the party prefer encrypted boxes, but the policy is clear. If I were to change any DTT policies now, I must justify the changes, consult the public and possibly have matters hauled through courts of law. There simply isn’t time. The 2019 deadline is fixed. We have to meet it.”

She added that government was not there to pay to further the private sector’s commercial interests. “If business wants encryption, they must pay for it themselves.”

According to analysts, simple boxes are cheaper but do not serve as decoders and can, therefore, limit industry growth and eliminate the option, for example, of services such as free internet for the poor.

Kubayi-Ngubane says the DA’s leaking of a board meeting between MultiChoice and the SABC was old news. “Those were documents the SABC submitted to Parliament. There is now a Special Investigating Unit looking at the deal. If they have new evidence, of course I will take it up.”

DTT ROLL-OUT CRISIS

Instead, Kubayi-Ngubane is focused on fast-tracking the DTT roll-out. One of her biggest headaches is that roll-out money allocated by Treasury has not been spent because of the delays. “I need them to sympathise with my situation and prove to them we have the will and the capacity.”

The state has been rolling out free STBs in the Northern Cape since late 2015.

“We have done fine in the area near the Square Kilometre Array and have already installed STBs in 27 000 households ... But applications are slow. We have 650 000 STBs sitting in storage that need to find homes, so I am changing our delivery model to make it more viable. I am reworking the roll-out programme.

Phase two, says Kubayi-Ngubane, is rolling DTT out along the country’s borders “to avoid spillage” and neighbours accessing South African TV content for free.

POWERS OVER SABC

Kubayi-Ngubane is also determined to appeal a high court judgment limiting her powers to decide the board’s choice of the SABC’s top executives. “The judgment is flawed and I am consulting senior counsel,” she said.

But, said William Bird, who was speaking on behalf of the SOS Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa, two of the parties which won the case against the ministry: “All parties are looking at putting forward a draft order that would allow the SABC board to go ahead and make crucial appointments, after consultation with the minister, in a manner that better protects the SABC’s independence.

“While we believe the minister is still fundamentally wrong to appeal, we believe that a draft order will, at least, allow the board to get on and start making appointments. If left in its current state, the board would have their hands tied and they would be stuck with acting positions – thus setting back any hope of bringing some semblance of stability to the SABC.”

The new SABC board has reportedly already been burdened with a R1.8m bill for the appointment process so far.

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