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DIGITAL TV: SHOULD FREE-TO-AIR CHANNELS BE ENCRYPTED?

More delays for South Africa’s migration to digital broadcasting as standards and regulations are relooked
South Africa is considering encrypting its free-to-air (FTA) television channels (SABC and e.tv) when it switches from analogue to digital broadcasting.

M-Net and e.tv have taken up positions on either side, with M-Net arguing against the encryption of FTA broadcasts while e.tv is arguing in favour of it.

Not to be left out of a good standards controversy, the Department of Communications (DoC) under Radhakrishna “Roy” Padayachie, who was recently redeployed to another ministry, added their voice to the debate at the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications in September 2011.

Padayachie said that the DoC wanted ownership of the of set-top box (STB) Control scheme, which includes encryption, to reside with the state.

Delays

Responding to M-Net’s statement that using encryption in STB Control would cause unnecessary delays, e.tv said that FTA broadcasters made provision in their project plans to allow enough time for the required integration work between the STB Control vendor and manufacturers.

E.tv said that M-Net’s objection to encryption has caused delays, holding back the free-to-air digital terrestrial television (DTT) project while M-Net’s DTT plans continue uninterrupted.

M-Net’s involvement in free-to-air broadcasting matters

Since M-Net is a pay-TV operator and not a free-to-air broadcaster, their involvement in this debate has been questioned. M-Net’s Karen Willenberg responded by stating that to exclude M-Net from the discussion is unfair.

According to Willenberg, who heads up M-Net’s regulatory and legal affairs division, they have been waiting 10 years for DTT to launch in SA. “Few people know that we were involved in the first DTT trials in 2001,” Willenberg said. “Anything that causes further delays is of concern to us.”

Willenberg also said that there will be an impact on M-Net subscribers in terms of receiving free-to-air services.

“We had agreed as a country that FTA digital services would be available and that we would facilitate that. Anything that frustrates that goal is relevant to us,” Willenberg said.

The cost of encryption

One pitfall in migrating to digital is how expensive you make the process for consumers, explained Willenberg.

M-Net argued that one of the problems with including encryption in STBs is that it adds more cost on top of an already expensive minimum-spec STB.

Countering M-Net’s argument of increased cost, e.tv said that their work shows that STB would cost R350-R420 (ex factory, or cost at the factory excluding transport, taxes, and other associated costs).

Of this cost, R10-R15 makes up STB Control, which e.tv said isn’t significant.

Willenberg answered to this point by saying that any additional cost to the box is significant when you’re talking about 10 million boxes. The ongoing cost of maintaining and supporting an encryption system is also a major concern.

STB permanence

M-Net also argued that the set-top box is supposed to be a temporary measure to allow viewers to receive digital TV signals without buying a new TV.

However, eventually you would buy a TV with a built-in digital tuner, similar to the way current TVs have integrated analogue tuners. Willenberg said that as a country we should not make decisions which restrict the ability of consumers to move to integrated TVs like they have in the rest of the world.

E.tv countered by saying that either consumers will use a STB with their integrated digital TV, as they will with a DSTV decoder, or STB Control will provide an impetus for local TV manufacturers to produce IDTs for the South African market.

According to e.tv:

Local digital TV manufacturers have grown significantly in the past two years and many of them are now sizeable companies with turnovers in the hundreds of millions of rands. Aside from supporting national interests, such as creating manufacturing jobs, these vested interests would encourage these businesses to use the local skills to develop local iDTV solutions.

The hardware cost to include STB control and/or encryption into a TV set is negligible – it is predominantly a software integration.

Overseas TV manufacturers have confirmed to e.tv that they would like to develop a specific product for Southern Africa that would embed the STB control mechanism into the TV. They believe that the market is big and exciting enough to do this.

Detriment to industry

In its presentation to Parliament in September 2011, M-Net said that integrating encryption will favour incumbent manufacturers and negatively impact local manufacturer’s ability to export their STBs.

E.tv responded to this point by saying that STB Control with encryption will help protect local manufacturers against foreign STB suppliers.

Local STB manufacturers could also easily change their production line for other markets, e.tv argued, adding that each market will have their own STB spec anyway.

Asked how prospective STB makers would get the specification to implement the control scheme in their devices, e.tv said: “The encryption standard and technology will be made available to STB vendors as widely as is practically possible.”

E.tv explained that the plan is for FTA broadcasters to appoint an STB Control vendor from which manufacturers will have to license the technology. STB makers would have to license a number of third party technologies anyway, e.tv said.

Universal broadband access

Another consideration is governments desire to provide a low-cost national broadband platform that is able to support basic forms of secure communication to a large audience, e.tv said.

“All modern broadband platforms use various forms of encryption to provide information and transaction security,” e.tv argued.

Willenberg agreed that the goal of universal broadband access is critical, but added that for this to become a reality, the release of the digital dividend must to be prioritised, which means a swift digital migration is necessary.

The digital dividend is frequency spectrum currently occupied by analogue TV broadcasts that will become available for rolling out services such as wireless broadband once the transition to DTT is completed.

Closing statements

For encryption in STB Control: E.tv

E.tv provided the following statement on its overall view on the role and necessity of STB Control for the South Africa digital TV migration.

The STB control system has the ability to allow broadcasters to provide direct messaging to consumers and it is envisaged that this type of information service will scale up with time to include targeted advertising.

This allows the digital nature of a terrestrial network to be better exploited (imagine cell phones without SMS!) and makes it a more relevant communication medium in today’s digital world.

Without encryption, it will prove difficult to prevent non-compliant STB’s from entering the market.

Since such STB’s are typically cheaper, it will mean that there be a proliferation of such STB products and it will make it very difficult for government and broadcasters alike to gain access to the full benefits a digital platform can offer. A good example of this is high definition TV – without encryption in place to protect people from buying lower cost standard definition STBs, consumers will be faced with having to buy a new STB when high definition services are introduced within a year or two of the digital launch.

Over and above additional services that can be realized by having STB Control with encryption, broadcasters have an obligation from content owners to protect content from unauthorized redistribution.

Against encryption in STB Control: M-Net

M-Net’s Karen Willenberg offered the following general statements on why STB Control should not include encryption:

STBs were always intended to be an interim step.

The obsession with STBs is short sighted and fails to take into account that the worldwide evolution is to TVs with integrated digital tuners and internet-enabled TVs.

The debate around STB functionality goes further than just encryption: It must be questioned whether it is necessary that only South Africa adopt a standard that adds cost and complexity for government and consumers, not just for now but forever.

The arguments against encrypting free-to-air signals have been positioned as an M-Net creation when none of the hundreds of countries around the world that have successfully migrated to digital have elected to encrypt their free-to-air broadcasts.

This is because an encryption system is expensive to deploy and maintain. You need call centres, you need to constantly upgrade the encryption to guard against hackers, you need to constantly manage the activation and de-activation of viewers.

The goal of universal broadband access is critical, but spending R2.45 billion on subsidising an STB is not the best way to achieve this goal.

Encryption will not ensure compliance; this is best achieved with a strong conformance scheme. In addition, local manufacturers will be forced to produce an SA-specific STB which means no economies of scale and this kills their ability to be competitive on price.

Weigh up decisions about functionality against the cost. We are not saying that the Rolls Royce of STBs should not be available to those consumers who want to pay for it, but that there is no need for Rolls Royce functionality in the most basic entry-level STB.

An entry-level STB that will cost R700 is not practical when this is only an interim step and the critical functionality is available at a fraction of the cost

Source: My Broadband – Jan Vermeulen