Digital broadcast policy a ‘blow for free-to-air TV'

TV is set for a shakeup. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
TV is set for a shakeup. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Johannesburg - Rejection of set-top box (STB) encryption by government could put free-to-air broadcasters, such as, "out of business".

This is according to the Democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister of Telecommunication and Postal Services, Marian Shinn, responding to a Department of Communications gazette of amendments to SA’s broadcasting digital migration policy.

The Department of Communications published the following key amendment to the policy on Wednesday.

“The STB control system for the free-to-air DTT STBs shall –

(a) not have capabilities to encrypt broadcast signals for the subsidised STBs; and

(b) be used to protect government investment in subsidised STB market thus supporting the local electronic manufacturing sector,” reads the gazette.

Set-top boxes are planned to decode digital signals for analogue television sets when South Africa makes its broadcast switchover.

And Shinn has argued that encryption of set-top boxes for digital television would ensure that the devices would stop receiving signals if they are stolen.

She has also said that encryption could protect free-to-air broadcasters from having their content illegally pirated.

“The policy as gazetted yesterday is what I subsequently feared it would be - the death knell of free-to-air TV broadcasting, and a major blow to local television content production, and a triumph for the ANC’s chosen partner in the TV broadcast space - MultiChoice. I fear it could put out of the free-to-air broadcast business,” Shinn told Fin24 over email.

The Department of Communications’ rejection of encrypted boxes is viewed as a victory for pay-TV provider MultiChoice and public broadcaster the SABC, who have both been in favour of not having STB encryption.

MultiChoice has previously said that television sets sold in SA in future will have digital capabilities built-in and that encrypted boxes would force owners of these TVs to still own STBs.

MultiChoice also took issue with the possibility that encrypted boxes could enable free-to-air broadcasters to enter the pay-TV market with the help of government subsidies. Government plans to subsidise set-top boxes for five million poor households.

Fin24 asked MutiChoice for comment on the criticism it has received regarding its call for no encryption on set-top boxes, and the company provided the following statement.

“Our stance of no encryption is based purely on cost and the consumers' interest. Encryption and the maintenance of that encryption is costly and will be ongoing for the life of that encryption. This is a subject we have intimate knowledge about. The taxpayer should not be made to fund these costs now and into the future,” said MultiChoice.

“We can now start the journey of migrating from analogue to digital with all the benefits that digital migration will bring,” the company told Fin24.

Meanwhile, told Fin24 that it “is studying the policy amendments and considering our position”. has previously supported set-top box encryption.

In the meantime, criticism of the Department of Communications' digital broadcast policy from the DA has highlighted certain concerns.

“I don’t believe these amendments to the policy are the views of those in DoC (Department of Communication) who understand digital broadcasting. These amendments certainly aren’t based on the advice of government’s advisers on the issue. I suspect these revisions were heavily influenced - if not crafted - by people outside the departments of communications and telecommunications and postal services,” Shinn told Fin24.

“This is not (a) middle ground - its (the DoC's) acquiescence to the marketing needs of dominant subscription TV broadcaster which encrypts its content to protect the producers’ IP (intellectual property), ensuring quality programming for its subscriber base. Non-encrypted content that will be available to non-subscription based platforms will be third rate as no quality content producer will allow their product to be broadcast on a platform that is not secured against hacking and piracy,” Shinn told Fin24.

* Fin24 is part of Media24, a subsidiary of Naspers, which owns MultiChoice.

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