Organisations representing both sides of the set-top box battle over encryption are celebrating cabinet’s announcement on Thursday that government-subsidised set-top boxes for digital television will contain a control system. Celebrations, however, could be premature.
On one side, the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic Components (Namec), which represents a number of black-owned set-top box manufacturers, welcomed remarks attributed to communications minister Faith Muthambi that the boxes to be subsidised by government will have a security feature only and not any form of conditional access or encryption.
Namec has supported pay-television operator MultiChoice in its opposition to encryption based on “conditional access”, with the DStv provider arguing that including such a mechanism would amount to unfair competition, giving prospective pay-TV rivals a free ride into the industry.
On the other side, industry association the South African Communications Forum (SACF) also welcomed cabinet’s decision, saying, among other things, that including a control system in the boxes will be “best for consumers” as it will “provide a better experience for viewers of free-to-air broadcasts”.
The SACF’s views largely reflect those of free-to-air broadcaster e.tv, which is strongly in favour of set-top box control. E.tv argues that encryption is needed to ensure free-to-air broadcasters can compete more effectively with MultiChoice.
However, government is yet to spell out what it means by a “control system”. In Thursday’s cabinet statement, it says the definition will be “clearly defined” when the amended broadcasting digital migration policy is published.
SACF CEO Loren Braithwaite-Kabosha says the forum supports encryption, but admits it’s not known yet if the final policy will mandate its use. Basic set-top box control does not require encryption or provide for conditional access.
Braithwaite-Kabosha also welcomed cabinet’s decision that set-top boxes would be provided free of charge to as many as 5m poorer households. Previously, government had planned to subsidise the cost of the boxes.
But it appears, based on Muthambi’s remarks at a press conference in Cape Town on Thursday, that the MultiChoice position could prevail.
“Set-top box control is a security feature only and does not mean encryption or access control,” she reportedly said.
Business Day on Friday quoted Muthambi’s spokesman, Ayanda Hollow, as saying said the cabinet decision was for a control system, but broadcasters would not be allowed to use the boxes for their own commercial purposes.
In a statement, MultiChoice welcomed Muthambi’s “clarification” that “the control system in set-top boxes will be a security feature only”.
Namec president Keith Thabo also welcomed the minister’s remarks, and added that although “more detail is still needed”, the association found it “encouraging that the minister of communications has emphasised that the set-top boxes subsidised by government will contain a security feature only and will not have conditional access or encryption”.
“We see no problem at all for government to protect their investment in set-top boxes. It is the correct thing to do. They are protecting the taxpayers of South Africa,” Thabo said. — © 2015 NewsCentral Media