Set top box

Asha Speckman

A SQUABBLE between Communications Minister Yunus Carrim, broadcasters and black electronic manufacturers over technology to be included in set-top boxes, funded by taxpayers, has divided the industry.

The SA Communications Forum (SACF) has accused MultiChoice, the Association of Community Television SA and the National Association for Manufacturers of Electronic Components (Namec) of misleading the public in an open letter, which was published in Sunday newspapers two weeks ago.

The SACF is an industry body representing broadcasters and telecommunications and postal services providers.

The organisation said the letter, which was presented as a full-page advertisement, had unduly cast aspersions on Carrim’s credibility as the minister of communications and it implied that the new broadcast digital migration policy, which was linked to the set-top project, served his interests.

“The advert is misleading to South Africans who might not be aware of all the behind the scenes negotiations, interests and facts at the heart of this issue,” the body claimed.

Digital migration is an internationally motivated process for countries to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting signals by June next year to free radio frequency spectrum. The activity results in more television channels and better quality visuals.

South Africa’s process has been delayed by among other things the disagreement over the inclusion of an encryption mechanism in government-subsidised set-top boxes which will be distributed to households who cannot afford to buy a digital television set. The set-top boxes convert the digital signal so that older television sets can receive digital signals.

Last Monday Carrim’s department said South Africa would not be able to kick-start the migration from next month as previously scheduled.

MultiChoice, community broadcasters and Namec have argued that the encryption, which controls access to content on the boxes, will raise the cost of the multimillion-rand digital migration project and bind South Africans to a set-top box for life.

They have added that over time all televisions will be digital, costs will be increased for free-to-air broadcasters, manufacturers, especially emerging black manufacturers, and the control system will make the migration process complex and cause delays.

The SACF said broadcasters would only bear infrastructure costs. Set-top boxes were already in use by MultiChoice pay-TV platforms M-Net and DStv. “MultiChoice’s representatives have stated that consumers will have to acquire two or three set-top boxes. This is totally misleading.

“A set-top box, which has a control system, can receive upgrades over the air without any inconvenience or extra cost to consumers.

“Without a control system consumers would have to keep buying new set-top boxes.”

It also argued that inclusion of the system would promote industrial development, protect television consumers and enhance economic transformation and job creation.

It added that the advert was placed at a time when the industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA, had launched an inquiry into competition in the sector.

The SACF argued that MultiChoice was currently promoting entry-level decoders targeting the same 8 million analogue television households. “Why would it be good for MultiChoice to connect to analogue television sets with their decoder but not good for free-to-air broadcasters to use decoders?” the SACF asked.

In December the National Assembly amended policy to reflect that use of the control system, although it might be included in the boxes, was optional. Broadcasters would pay the government R20 a box should they decide to activate the control system at a later stage. The ministry, meanwhile, and MultiChoice continued to trade accusations against each other by the end of last week.

On Thursday, Siya Qoza, Carrim’s spokesman, said in response to a MultiChoice statement the previous day that “MultiChoice cannot speak for the poor. It has no mandate from them. It is the poor, after all, who are excluded from watching MultiChoice, including major sports events, over which it has exclusive control.

“Nor can it speak for consumers from whom it makes its super profits.”