Government should not impose an encryption system based on conditional access in the set-top boxes that taxpayers will subsidise for poorer households to receive digital terrestrial television. When it meets this week, cabinet should reject the idea, which has polarised the broadcasting industry for far too long.
This Wednesday, communications minister Yunus Carrim will present a range of documents and proposals to cabinet, among them a much-revised national broadband plan and strategy. Also on the agenda will be proposals to get a move on with the long-delayed migration from analogue to digital television, including finding a solution to the impasse caused by the war between proponents and opponents of conditional access in free-to-air television.
South Africa’s inability to free up spectrum for broadband through television migration is a threat to economic growth. Cabinet must use its meeting this week to put the raging battle between e.tv and MultiChoice to rest by expressing a firm view on conditional access, and both camps should (but probably won’t) accept the outcome.
To be fair, it’s a complex issue, with both sides usually advancing good arguments. But ultimately, the benefits of rejecting conditional access outweigh its adoption. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay for a system that will chiefly benefit private broadcasters.
MultiChoice, which owns DStv, argues strongly that including conditional access in the up to 5m set-top boxes that will be subsidised by government will amount to unfair competition. It’s tempting to reject the company’s argument given that the broadcaster thoroughly dominates South Africa’s pay-television market, but it has a point. Introducing conditional access — which means viewers will have to use a smart card — will add unnecessary complexity to South Africa’s digital terrestrial TV project.
Conditional access is a key element in pay TV. It’s used to switch off non-paying customers and to control access to services. MultiChoice thinks e.tv wants government to subsidise its entry into the pay-TV market. But e.tv has rejected this accusation, saying it has no intention of using the free-to-air set-top boxes to offer a pay service and that it needs the system, among other things, to ensure it can secure access to more up-to-date programming from international content suppliers, allowing it to compete more effectively with DStv.
But as one top ICT industry figure put it to me this week, the debate has long since moved on. Set-top boxes made sense a decade ago, when South Africa first started talking about the migration project, but this is no longer the case. Many television manufacturers already include a receiver or converter in their sets that allow consumers to watch digital TV without the separate cost of a set-top box.
Instead, if government believes there’s a need to offer a subsidy to poorer households, it should find a way of cutting the cost of flat-screen TVs with integrated digital receivers. Already, the cost of some 32-inch models has fallen below R2 000 — not out of the reach of most South Africans — so do we need to spend the money at all?
Carrim told parliament recently that cabinet will consider a number of factors when deciding whether to support conditional access. This includes which approach will best protect the local electronics industry and create jobs. But this is a red herring. The benefits of getting a move on with digital migration, allowing telecoms operators to use the spectrum that will be freed up, have been clearly spelt out in a number of reports. The benefits of rapid migration far outweigh attempts to protect local manufacturers.
Some industry players argue that conditional access will help protect the local electronics manufacturing industry, but the question that has to be asked is whether the cost of this sort of protectionism is worth it. Emerging black set-top box manufacturers are sharply divided on the issue. Surely it would be better to open up the airwaves to as many broadcasters as possible — the digital airwaves will be able to carry as many as 140 channels — and to begin fostering a vibrant local content production industry in the process?
Carrim told parliament that cabinet will consider what’s the “fastest, simplest and most effective way to move forward” given that the country is already so far behind schedule. If government is honest with itself, it can only reach one conclusion: it should reject conditional access and fast-track the move to digital.
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Find him on Twitter
- This column was first published in the Sunday Times