SUCH is the way things are progressing with SA’s migration from analogue to digital television, that by the time it happens the “new” technology will be redundant.

That is clearly a facetious point of view, although there is an element of truth to it — there are already indications that South Africans with reliable broadband access are abandoning broadcast television in favour of streamed content, much of it illegal.

US on-demand internet streaming service Netflix has announced that it will expand to SA within the next 18 months, although some locals are already subscribing via foreign proxies.

And a number of similar domestic services have been launched in anticipation, including Vidi, an offering by Times Media Group, which owns this newspaper.

Internet streaming is not yet an option available to the majority of South Africans due to the slow roll-out of broadband infrastructure and high cost of uncapped data. In the meantime, broadcast television will remain the opium of the people and, now that e.tv has confirmed that it will approach the courts to have key elements of the government’s controversial migration and set-top box control policy set aside, those broadcasts will remain analogue for the foreseeable future.

This latest obstacle to migration was, of course, entirely predictable. The government procrastinated for so long, flip-flopped on migration policy so often and has been so opaque in its reasoning on key policy decisions that it was almost inevitable that one or another of the interested parties would cry foul.

In the event it is e.tv, and seemingly with reason. The government has decided that the set-top boxes viewers will need to convert digital signal to analogue signal recognised by their TV sets, will not have encryption capability — which puts e.tv and other free-to-air broadcasters at a competitive disadvantage.

This is because content providers are reluctant to license free-to-air broadcasters to broadcast new, prime content if it will not be encrypted to avoid piracy, and because encryption allows for far better picture quality.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which broadcasts free to air, is in the same position but has signed a controversial contract with pay-TV service MultiChoice in terms of which the latter will pay R100m a year for five years and host the SABC’s 24-hour news show and a new entertainment channel on DStv. In return, MultiChoice has exclusive rights to the SABC archive for those five years — and the SABC agreed to no set-top box encryption.

The High Court in Gauteng will ultimately determine whether e.tv is correct in maintaining that the migration policy contradicts a 2012 court judgment that found it was unlawful for the communications minister to make decisions on technical issues — such as whether or not to encrypt content — that have implications for free-to-air broadcasters.

Unfortunately, this ruling is unlikely to be the end of it. Confusion reigns over the awarding of the R4.3bn tender for the supply and manufacture of 5-million set-top boxes, with the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA at first indicating that all 20 bidders would get a piece of the action.

It has subsequently been reported that all bidders have been placed on a short list and asked to provide information on pricing, warranty, delivery periods and test reports, a duplication of audit work already carried out by Ernst & Young.

Some bidders have expressed concern not only that this will further delay the tender process, but that the reason for the change of heart is that there has been political interference and the aim of the new audit is to justify including bidders that did not qualify the first time around.

Source: BDLive