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DIGITAL TV WAR RAGES ON

South Africa’s path towards switching on digital television continues to be dogged by controversy. Now there are charges by a number of stakeholders that the latest formula proposed by the government, under the guidance of Communications Minister Yusuf Carrim, was designed to benefit a single private enterprise, e.tv.

Yesterday Carrim dismissed these accusations as nonsense and said the proposal was as a result of a broad range of issues, including legalities and a developmental agenda.

Early this month the Cabinet gazetted a proposal to insert a control system into subsidised digital set top boxes (STBs) to be used by households to access digital television.

This has drawn fire from a group of stakeholders, who argue that the mandatory insertion of the control system into the STBs is an unnecessary complication, only necessary to give new pay television operators an unfair leg up at the expense of consumers who have to pay for a more expensive STB.

Sources close to the matter allege that e.tv, thought to be harbouring plans of launching a pay television operation, had a hand in the development. They charge that the control system will allow e.tv to hop into pay television, via the STB control system, without making the massive investment required for such an operation. E.tv could not be reached for comment.

The group opposed to the control system includes pay television operator Multichoice, the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronics Components (Namec) and the Association of Community TV in South Africa (Actsa). Interestingly, this group also features the SABC, which reports to the ministry of communications.

They argue that South Africa needs a simple STB without a control system or local encryption. Pay television operators who want to use the system must pay their own way into having it.

SABC acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng said the control system would disturb the public broadcasters’ mandate to ensure universal coverage.

The back office infrastructure required to run with the control system would add an unnecessarily heavy burden to the public broadcaster, said Motsoeneng. Only pay TV operators would benefit from the system. He said the government’s first duty in the process must be towards the public service and not a private enterprise.

Multichoice South Africa CEO Imtiaz Patel said: “Nowhere else in the world is this happening.”

He said the proposed path equalled a heavy subsidisation of private enterprise by the government and taxpayers.

Namec’s president Keith Thabo said: “The control system presents a huge problem to our members and has the potential to destroy the many businesses that have been set up to take advantage of the migration to a digital system.

“Namec at various forums has pronounced its objection to the inclusion of conditional access and encryption in the STBs. This position has been strengthened further by the court judgement.

“As Namec we strongly object to the draft policy amendment in its entirety, as it contravenes the court decision.”

Carrim dismissed the accusations as unfounded: “Whoever wants to use the control system in the STBs, not just e.tv, will have to pay for it and to its full value.”

“We can’t allow anybody to ride on the back of a state subsidy for the poor. If we had dropped control from the STBs, e.tv could have taken us to court. The South African Bureau of Standards standard would have to be changed, causing a further delay of a minimum of six months.”

He added that without the control system the South African market would be flooded by cheap, low quality imports that would undermine the local manufacturing industry and the prospects of jobs.

“We worked closely with Department of Trade and Industry on this approach, and it was adopted by the Cabinet as a whole.

“Our approach certainly caters for emerging entrepreneurs in ways that are consistent with government’s BBBEE policies, legislation and regulations.

A key criteria in our decision was the need to create space for emerging entrepreneurs. But it would be illegal to grant the tender to a specific group of entrepreneurs, as some seem to be demanding. There are other black manufacturers who support control,” Carrim said.

“We have asked the SABC to establish a joint technical committee with the Department of Communications to settle any outstanding matters, and are disappointed that instead the SABC is siding with commercial entities and taking this approach, instead of engaging with the representatives of its shareholder.”

Source: Teh New Age – Sibonelo Radebe