Cape Town. 09.11.2005. A hi-tech dual decoder/recorder was just launched by DStv in Cape Town. Viewers will be able to watch channels while the third channel get recorded. The machine features 80 hours of recording to a harddrive. Story Andrew October

The South African Communications Forum strongly supports Icasa’s inquiry into anti-competitive practices, says Loren Braithwaite Kabosha.

Johannesburg - Last week, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) announced it would finally begin an inquiry into anti-competitive practices in the broadcasting market in South Africa.

As the regulator explained the reason for its investigation, “consumers locked in Multichoice contracts are confronted by escalating costs with no relief in sight”.

The South African Communications Forum strongly supports Icasa’s intention to conduct a broad inquiry into competition in the information and communications technology industry.

The forum, a non-profit industry association, represents some of the leading stakeholders in the telecommunications, electronic media, postal, information technology, electronic manufacturing and broadcasting industries.

With members from across the sector, the forum has credibility within the industry, the government and the regulator and seeks to propagate its members’ interests and focus on the long-term objectives and broad-based expansion of the national sector to meet the development needs of our nation.

The forum believes the role Multichoice is playing in delaying digital migration also deserves Icasa’s scrutiny.

Last week, Multichoice launched a seemingly personal attack on Communications Minister Yunus Carrim in an advertisement in the form of an “open letter”, and has threatened delaying litigation if the government’s Broadcast Digital Migration Policy is gazetted and is finalised as it stands.

The core issue Multichoice is objecting to is the inclusion of a control system in the set-top box or decoder that will be required by all television viewers as a result of digital migration.

It was not Carrim who decided to include a control system – it has been government policy since 2008, was approved by the industry for inclusion in the SABS standard finalised in 2012, and affirmed unanimously by the cabinet last year.

Including a control system in the decoder will enable free-to-air broadcasters to offer a much greater range of services to their customers, in addition to the many more channels they will be able to broadcast once digital migration is complete.

A greater objective for the forum and our members is that once these decoders are deployed throughout the country to even the poorest of the poor by way of a government subsidy, they will lower the costs for a competitors to enter the market, provide significantly more channels with crisper sound and picture quality, and will be in almost every household – without any need for a monthly subscription.

The forum represents several manufacturers (all of whom are level 2 or 3 BBBEE contributors) who have been waiting through years of delay for the launch of digital migration.

They emphasise that the inclusion of a control system will ensure a sustainable business model for the electronics manufacturing sector beyond decoders.

In these years of delay, the electronics manufacturing industry has been shrinking due to pressure from imports of cheaply made and, in some cases, dumped electronic goods.

This has resulted in a loss of jobs, the closing of assembly lines and production plants.

On the basis of media pronouncements, it would seem Multichoice is campaigning for South Africans who are not its customers to not have quality decoders but instead have cheap, imported decoders without the vital control system that would protect the decoder from theft or hacking.

The Kenyan government found out the hard way what a disaster this would be for consumers and a nightmare for the government.

In the end, the consumer will bear the brunt if the decoder does not have a control system.

The Kenyan government ill-advisedly removed the control system in its decoders for digital migration and its market was swamped with just the kind of cheap imports Multichice is advocating for South Africans who are not its customers.

Now the Kenyan government is under siege from consumers because these decoders have a high percentage of failure, and the flood of grey imports made possible by removal of the control system do not work on their networks.

Alarmed by this experience, other countries such as Zambia, Uganda, Botswana, Ethiopia, Seychelles, Malawi, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya, Malaysia, Ukraine, Belarus and Slovakia are now including a control system in their decoders used for digital migration.

Ultimately, we are moving from analogue to digital broadcasting to free up radio frequency spectrum – the “digital dividend” which is vital to move to the next generation of wireless technology, to improve broadband quality and speed, and to deliver data services to citizens.

South Africa’s challenge as a developing state is to accelerate economic growth and social development inclusive of all its citizens.

Technology has been a principal engine for economic growth and job creation.

Globally, most of the jobs in today’s economy are based on technologies that did not exist 50 years ago, a vast majority of them are based largely on technology developed in the past 10 to 20 years.

Information and communications technology innovations have meant that economies are able to grow in ways that were not previously foreseen.

Providing broader access to such technologies by accessing the “digital dividend” is vital for South Africans to cross the digital and economic divides to a knowledge economy.

The South African Communications Forum supports the position of the cabinet and urges all interested stakeholders, and especially consumers, to keenly support the government’s position so that all South Africans are able to take full advantage and have access to broad-based development.

South Africa can no longer be held to ransom by narrow commercial interests – digital migration must begin now.

* Loren Braithwaite Kabosha is the chief executive of the South African Communications Forum.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent