It’s important that the government’s stance on set-top box encryption is not misconstrued, writes Solly Mapaila
Are we heading for a new apartheid-style content divide for the poor? There appears to be mass confusion over the issue of set-top box (STB) control systems and technical standards, which are to be included in the forthcoming Broadcasting Digital Migration Amendment Policy.
In December 2013, the cabinet approved amendments to the Digital Migration Policy, draft amendments of which stipulated that all STBs would have a robust STB control system that is not mandatory for use by broadcasters in the transmission and management of their broadcasting services but enables access to a secure mechanism to ensure access to the STB control system on the digital terrestrial television platform by broadcasters which choose to make use of the control system.
Underneath this technical language, is the simple promise that all broadcasters (not just subscription ones) will be able to ensure controlled access to this advancement over analogue programming.
On the surface, this appears to fly in the face of the universal access principles of free-to-air broadcasting.
But this is not the case. With the migration to digital worldwide, content producers are increasingly concerned at the need to protect their programming from piracy and ensure broadcasters that have legitimate access to programming (through contracts) are not unwittingly enabling criminals to access and copy the content.
Conditional access systems decrypt encrypted signals to allow authorised people access to view the content.
It is critical to note that encryption is not only used by pay television/subscription broadcasters.
It is also used by free-to-air broadcasters to ensure the public is able to access content legitimately, while protecting the content from being copied.
Requiring this kind of STB control has been supported by the government in its policy pronouncements and by cabinet for some years.
This is evidenced by the December 2013 Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy, the SABS standard published in June 2012 and the draft SABS Standard published this year.
STB with conditional access will strengthen free-to-air broadcasters (including SABC, e.tv and community television services), protect television content and ensure the poor receive premium content (including sports broadcasting rights like the Fifa World Cup) free while preventing or minimising content piracy.
In the latest cabinet statement of March 4, it “approved the Broadcasting Digital Migration Amendment Policy with the inclusion of the control system in the STB, which will be clearly defined when the policy is published”.
Nothing in the statement indicates a change of heart on the type of STB control envisaged in the December 2013 policy and national standards.
The understanding that the cabinet did not intend amending the principles of STB enshrined in the Broadcasting Digital Migration December 2013 cabinet decision is correct.
Further, it is correct to expect South Africa not to repeat the mistake made in the early years of our democracy when we launched Astrasat, opting for analogue satellite, while enabling a monopoly regarding digital satellite.
Digital migration must be used to bridge the digital divide, bridge the content divide, promote local content development, enhance the television production industry, promote local manufacturing, diversify the television landscape and strengthen free-to-air television in the public interest.
To address all the key objectives of the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy, a conditional access system with encryption is required.
This means the transport stream or digital multiplex of all channels being transmitted should be encrypted but not the content or service.
The encryption does not mean the free-to-air broadcasting services will require any payment from the viewer as this will be a free-to-view system.
The conditional access system is used by both free-to-air and subscription services but for free-to-air broadcasters, there is no encryption for individual channels.
The latest statement by the Department of Communications, dated March 8, appears to fly in the face of the draft policy amendments and previous policy positions taken by the government in the public interest.
In it, the department states the STB control system envisaged “does not mean a conditional access system nor does it mean encryption of the signal to control access to content by viewers”.
Instead, it refers to “a security feature to encourage the local electronic manufacturing sector” which has “minimal switching (on/off) security features to protect the subsidised STBs from theft or leaving South African borders”.
What is the effect of this?
In effect, the choice boils down to whether or not the STB is to be a “smart” box or a “dumb” box; to whether South Africans who cannot afford subscription television, will or will not have access to free-to-air broadcasting, which is able to secure programming contracts bringing the best and newest programming to viewers free. It is down to whether South Africans who cannot afford subscription television, will or will not have access to free-to-air broadcasting, which is able to secure sports broadcasting rights and, therefore, watch sport of national interest; protecting the pay television and subscription monopoly.
Who else is to benefit with this department option other than the television/subscription monopoly?
Is South African limited funding going to be used to produce a dump box which will compromise access to e-governance services?
Will this not be a fruitless investment, like Astrasat, a pay-TV market the investment in which failed to propel the SABC, thereby benefiting digital satellite pay television?
Is this option by the department intended to comply with the controversial SABC/MultiChoice agreement, which must be cancelled as it is intended to weaken the public broadcaster through selling the core of its balance sheet – its content, to MultiChoice for peanuts?
If the STB has no encryption capabilities, it can only be used to deliver information which will be unsecured or with limited security.
This means no personal citizen information can be sent over the platform.
It will be like “sending e-mail without passwords, allowing anyone to access it as they please”.
Expert advice suggests if data is not encrypted on the STB, there is no way it can deliver secure and complete e-government services, unless STBs are personalised and, therefore, allow users to be individually addressed.
Conditional access is not intended for use by pay TV only. It is not intended to control access to content by viewers.
In any event, the communications regulator the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa was established to regulate in the public interest and would never allow free-to-air broadcasters to convert to pay television.
Therefore, encryption in an STB used by free-to-air broadcasters will be used to protect content from piracy, from being copied, to protect it from criminals and to protect e-governance services content.
At the same time, it will secure the box from being used in jurisdictions where the STB is not enabled, thus minimising theft of these STBs.
The introduction of digital television presents an opportunity to protect and strengthen free-to-air broadcasters through giving them a multi-channel platform to meet the content needs of the public and diversity needs.
This is particularly so for the public broadcaster, the SABC, through which most South Africans receive television programming.
Over the years, the ANC-led government and cabinet have made it clear that the digital divide is to be overcome through the introduction of digital television, not further entrenched by preventing free-to-air broadcasters from securing and protecting world-class content for all the people in the country and not just the wealthy
Digital terrestrial television also has the potential to help bridge the content divide, thereby enabling all citizens to have access to diversity of content and premium content.
The SACP is against the monopoly entrenched in the digital satellite pay television landscape and the glaring misinterpretation of the cabinet decision to, knowingly or unknowingly, weaken free-to-air TV and grow the pay-TV monopoly.
* Solly Mapaila is SACP second deputy secretary-general
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.