SA’s hijacked digital TV switch has lost sight of the viewer

2014-02-19 05:30
Cape Town – The South African TV industry's long-delayed and completely stalled switch-over from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT) has been hijacked for "job creation" and other interests and concerns, having lost sight of who and what it is really supposed to be about: the ordinary TV viewer.

DTT in South Africa has forgotten and cut out of the picture and planning the ordinary TV viewer and their accessibility, the ability to afford it, and their viewing experience.

Although the paramount concern and interest is and should remain what is best, easiest, least disruptive to the South African TV viewer and providing the best quality and widest choice of TV channels, DTT in South Africa is vastly delayed.

The process – with its interests and objectives skewed – is now primarily about money, economics and "job creation".

The South African government wants to use DTT to create 25 500 jobs, that goal superceding the best interests of the ordinary TV viewer.

Although South Africa started first with planning for DTT in Africa, the country has become the laughing stock of the continent when it comes to DTT and the switch-over process known as digital migration.

South Africa is lagging far behind even countries like Rwanda and Zimbabwe which have made the switch – a process which must be completed internationally by June 2015, but a deadline which South Africa is definitely going to miss.

DTT was supposed to launch in South Africa in 2008 and then end the process of "dual illumination" in 2011 – the point where broadcasters no longer each run an analogue and digital signal concurrently while viewers made the switch, but only continue with a digital signal.

Years after the self-imposed deadline, digital television migration in South Africa is a convoluted mess.

The next e-tolling saga waiting to explode?

Experts describe what’s coming to Channel24 as possibly the e-tolling saga waiting to explode when ordinary TV viewers without pay-TV satellite dishes discover that they'll have to pay around R800 for a set-top box (STB) – basically a decoder – just to keep receiving the public television transmissions they used to get. In many cases ordinary viewers will also have to buy a new antenna.

STB cost will also be higher to ordinary consumers due to proprietary software and the hardware which has to be included in the manufacture of the boxes due to a controversial Conditional Access (CA) system.

Potential STB manufacturers and broadcasters are all fighting among each other and with each other over the CA issue – basically whether this encryption "lock" should be built into the decoder boxes or not.

Those who argue for it says a CA system is necessary to make sure that boxes are manufactured in South Africa only, that manufacturing standards can be maintained and that boxes can be turned off when taken outside of South Africa. It will protect and enable local STB job manufacture and creation.

Those who argue against a CA system says it raises the cost, that public access and free television in a country should never include a "condition" for citizens to be able to watch television, that it amounts to unfair competition, and that it makes it more difficult for ordinary viewers to use.

The government decided on a CA system "to protect its investment" since the South African government will subside the manufacturing of STBs and to "ensure standards". In 2013 the government softened CA specifications, saying it will be included but remain "optional".

'It is really about jobs'

The minister of communications, Yunus Carrim, giving feedback from the department in parliament on Wednesday, never used or discussed the interest of ordinary TV viewers once.

On the contentious Conditional Access (CA) system over which the industry and broadcasters such as the SABC and MultiChoice on the one side, and Sabido's on the other are still at loggerheads, Carrim told the portfiolio committee on communications that "those who want to use it can use it, those who don't want to use it, don't have to use it. Those who use it will have to pay for it".

"However there's still no consensus. We could strictly go ahead and implement it [the policy] but we think we should still try to bridge the gaps".

"This is not an issue about broadcasters. It is really an issue about jobs," said Carrim. "We really need this for economic growth reasons. It's not a luxury".

SA’s DTT still stuck

"Here [in South Africa] we are stuck about 'if you have control, we will take you to court' and 'if you don't have control, we will take you to court'. The world is moving on. And we are here – still stuck. So we are pleading with stakeholders. We're keeping it open for another three to four weeks, and then government will have to decide what to do," said Carrim.

"We [government] do not want to proceed without more consensus. We want everybody to work together on this thing," he said.

"We can't continue like this. People can continue their profits. They can continue to fight for market share, but surely there is a time for national interest. I don't know what more government can do," said Carrim.

"If we drop Conditional Access control altogether, we can't as government see how we're going to protect black emerging manufacturers – let alone the local electronic industry because our market will be flooded by low quality products as happened in Mauritius and Tanzania".

"The point I want to stress is that the STB Conditional Access (CA) matter is related to broader issues of industrial policy. It's not simply a broadcasting issue," said Carrim.

"The set-top box manufacturing development strategy encourages black emerging entrepreneurs. We have to use this issue to create an indigenous, African emerging electronic industry".

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