Cape Town – e.tv is taking South Africa's minister of communications, Faith Muthambi, to court over the looming switch to digital terrestrial television (DTT), demanding once again that encryption be installed and made mandatory in the set-top boxes (STBs) which millions of South African TV viewers will have to buy.
The application which e.tv will make on Tuesday in the High Court in Gauteng could once again further delay South Africa's switch to DTT, a process known as digital migration.
The added delay at this point wouldn't make any difference however.
South Africa's controversial and long-delayed switch from analogue to digital television is years behind schedule due to government bungling and delays, multiple ministers of communications who have come and gone, industry infighting over everything from broadcasting standards to decoders, delays with and the multiple reissue of DTT regulations as well as problems over everything from set-top box standards to drama around the dubious STB tender process worth billions.
South Africa's shocking and ongoing DTT drama has made it the laughing stock of the world's TV and IT industry, with the country set to miss the internationally agreed deadline to complete the switch by June this year - a deadline from the International Telecommunications Union (ITC).
It will take South Africa at least three to five years to complete the switch once the commercial process of DTT starts, and with less than two months before the deadline to complete the switch, South Africa hasn't yet started.
It will cost South Africa billions as South African TV households will have to pay around R700 to R800 each to buy a new STB to continue to receive TV signals.
Switch experts are describing it as the next looming e-tolls scandal.
Only the poorest of households will be subsidised and the South African government wants to use the South African Post Office to distribute the STBs.
Serious questions are being raised over the dramatic underfunding and DTT budget shortfall, with experts asking where the money to enable the subsidising of STBs the government envisions, will be coming from.
With all these ongoing DTT issues swirling, e.tv is still adamant that it wants the STBs to have the ability to encrypt broadcast signals and wants a control system in the boxes to be made mandatory.
The Sabido-run free-to-air broadcaster considers it essential to be able to encrypt its broadcast signal "primarily because this would prevent non-compliant STBs from receiving digital broadcast signals, thereby ensuring a uniform and reliable viewing experience".
e.tv says without this, it is unlikely that e.tv in the future will be able to offer high definition (HD) TV channels.
The SABC, MultiChoice which runs DStv, M-Net and community TV stations in South Africa object to this.
Earlier this year Faith Muthambi said STBs won't run encrypted TV signals and that the STB control system shall be non-mandatory.
This has therefore led to e.tv to take Faith Muthambi to court, to argue that it is unlawful for the minister of communications to "make decisions on certain key critical technical issues that affect free-to-air broadcasters".
"The minister and cabinet have repeatedly stated that they wished to respect the right of individual broadcasters to decide for themselves whether to encrypt their signals.
However the effect of the policy is precisely the opposite," says Mark Rosin, e.tv's chief operating officer (COO).
"What e.tv seeks to ensure is that the broadcasting digital migration policy does not prevent us making our own decision regarding encryption of our broadcast signal.
"In one provision the minister purports to allow broadcasters the right to make their own decisions on the question of encryption. But in another adjacent provision, the minister renders this right unimportant by stating that the 5 million government subsidised STBs shall not have the capacity to encrypt," says Rosin.
“e.tv also accepts that it is important that the digital migration process begin and conclude as soon as possible so that the benefits of the digital migration process can be realised.
"For that reason e.tv contends that it is important that finality be obtained as soon as possible on the lawfulness of certain provisions and that its application must therefore be dealt with as one of urgency.”
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