Communications Minister Yunus Carrim. Photo: GCIS

Johannesburg - The commercial roll-out of the digital terrestrial television migration project has been derailed and will not take place from April 1 because of delays caused by bickering among broadcasters and disagreements with Communications Minister Yunus Carrim.

Carrim’s spokesman, Siya Qoza, said yesterday: “Unfortunately, because of the constant feuding among the parties, we will not be able to start the roll-out in April.

“We intend to bring to a close the current negotiations very soon and shortly thereafter we’ll start the roll-out.”

In Sunday newspapers, a full-page advert criticised Carrim. The advert was run by community broadcasters, emerging manufacturers of set-top boxes and MultiChoice, which operates the country’s largest pay-TV broadcaster, DStv.

On the same day Carrim accused the parties of peddling the “same old tired issues”.

The government intends to subsidise the roll-out of set-top boxes to more than 5 million households that cannot afford to pay the full price. A set-top box is necessary to allow households with analogue television sets to receive digital signals.

The International Telecommunications Union requires countries to switch over by June next year. Countries that do not comply by then risk losing the protection of their signal from interference.

Broadcasters claimed taxpayers, who will fund the project, would be disadvantaged and Carrim was advancing “narrow commercial interests” because of his unwavering support for a technology that controls access to television services via set-top boxes.

They claimed that emerging manufacturers could not afford the international accreditation necessary to be able to use the technology in the decoders.

They claimed other countries had rejected the position South Africa was adopting, and fully integrated digital television sets would soon replace the need for set-top boxes.

Imtiaz Patel, the chief executive of MultiChoice, said yesterday that South Africa could become a dumping ground for First World analogue television sets and set-top boxes if it spent unnecessary money to keep soon-to-be-outdated technology.

Calvo Mawela, the head of stakeholder and regulatory affairs at Naspers-owned MultiChoice, claimed the government would fall foul of World Trade Organisation principles about control of access.

Qoza said Carrim was following policy that was adopted in 2008. In December the National Assembly made it optional for broadcasters to use the control system that would be fitted to every box for industrial policy reasons. “Those using the system will pay for it,” he said.

Russell Southwood, the chief executive of consulting firm Balancing Act, said no other country in Africa had included conditional access in digital signal decoders. “It puts the price of the box up marginally. It gives free-to-air broadcasters the capacity to behave as pay-TV operators. You can imagine DStv might be against that.”

But he added the functionality would provide more competition in a heavily monopolised market with “a rather small number of television stations”. - Business Report