Court ruling complicates digital TV rollout

Asha Speckman

A HIGH court ruling in favour of, which declared unlawful a Department of Communications decision over the signal anti-piracy system to be used in set-top boxes for digital television, will have repercussions for manufacturers, according to an industry player.

Set top box. Credit: GCIS

A Department of Communications official said that implementation of the court order and its impact on manufacturers was also likely to result in an increase in the cost of the set-top boxes for consumers who were not eligible for a state subsidy and who had to buy their own set-top box.

Last week Shaun Hendricks, the managing executive for set-top boxes at Tellumat, said the market would experience delays in the delivery of set-top boxes for the digital terrestrial television migration project and costs for manufacturing could increase by an estimated R3 million. There could also be service challenges in the longer term.

Manufacturers are caught in the middle of a complex dispute in which free-to-air broadcaster has now successfully challenged in court the decision by Communications Minister Dina Pule to appoint state-owned signal distributor Sentech to manage the conditional access control system on set-top boxes.

The conditional access control system protects the digital signal from being pirated by illegal set-top boxes.

In its case, argued that itself and other broadcasters should manage the conditional access control system and not Sentech.

The Department of Communications is challenging the court’s ruling and earlier last week met with broadcasters to discuss the implications of the legal order.

Hendricks said manufacturers had been working with the department over the past five years to finalise specifications for the set-top boxes to be manufactured. He said if the broadcasters were to introduce changes to the set-top box specifications it would take six months to integrate new conditional access vendors into the manufacturers’ solutions.

“New agreements with the selected vendors would have to be reached, our hardware designs would need to be vetted by the vendor, changes may need to be implemented at a hardware and software level and then certification testing of all implemented changes needs to be completed,” Hendricks said.

“This would require a significant software integration upgrade of our existing software baseline.”

Hendricks said that selecting a new vendor would have a “significant impact on our designs”.

He said Tellumat, a South African firm, had invested at least R13m to comply with the specifications.

Earlier last week the department said it estimated that if a new vendor was selected, the digital migration project, for which goal posts had been shifted numerously, could be delayed by another three years.

The government has set itself a target of completing the project by the end of this year but so far it has been unable to appoint preferred manufacturers of the set-top boxes.

Themba Phiri, the deputy director-general in the department, said the manufacturers’ concerns were valid as manufacturers were required to pay royalties to conditional access control vendors.

Phiri said he anticipated that the industry could pass on the higher manufacturing costs to consumers who would have to buy their own set-top boxes.

The government plans to subsidise set-top boxes for about 5 million poor households but Phiri said the figure could increase in future.

The broadcasters will meet the department on January 28 with solutions to the dispute.