If the software used to control access to set-top boxes (STBs) is hacked, it would mean the replacement of every single unit in the country, says e.tv COO Bronwyn Keene-Young.
She also says constitutional issues could be raised, should someone other than the viewer control an STB, or send the viewer messages without consent.

TV broadcasters and the Department of Communications (DOC) are in a standoff over the latter`s insistence that full conditional access is used to secure STBs – the units that are needed to convert digital TV signals for reception on analogue sets.

The issue is becoming more urgent as the country is about to enter a three-year period, starting 1 November, that will signal its migration from the current analogue system to a fully digital TV system.

DOC view

The DOC`s and communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri`s view is that conditional access is needed because government will spend about R2.4 billion to subsidise 70% of the STB estimated cost of R700 per unit, for five million poor households. They also want those STBs to be strictly controlled and not to be sold to some third party.

The SABC has taken a far more sanguine view of the matter, as opposed to its private rival. However, the broadcasters` views were made apparent two weeks ago when the Digital Dzonga, the committee Matsepe-Casaburri set up to advise on the country`s migration to digital terrestrial TV, asked that conditional access be removed as a requirement. The minister rejected the request.

Keene-Young says e.tv believes that, for successful digital migration to happen in SA, an STB is required that is affordable and easy to acquire and self-install.

“Conditional access is a security measure associated with pay-television – it is not a free-TV concept,” she says.

Unnecessary and costly

Keene-Young`s view is that the inclusion of conditional access (CA) or STB control in the lowest-cost entry-level box is unnecessary and costly. She believes this will have a detrimental effect on the quick and efficient roll-out of boxes, and the success of free-to-air digital broadcasting in SA. It will also add significant and unnecessary costs to broadcasters and signal distributors in an environment where broadcasters will carry the financial burden of migration, notes the COO.

She says e.tv does not oppose the idea that the STBs should have a mechanism to ensure they cannot be operated outside the country – so-called “mux verification”. However, e.tv opposes any mechanism which allows a third-party to control the access by individual viewers to free-to-air television.

“The type of control being proposed would enable someone other than the viewer to control the viewer`s access, either by switching off his/her STB, or by sending the viewer individual messages without the viewer`s consent. E.tv submits that what is at stake are constitutional issues concerning unimpeded access to information, in addition to the financial and economic issues.”

Keene-Young says that, if CA and encryption are included, a subscriber management system would have to be established as each box would have to be controlled in the same way as pay-TV broadcaster DSTV controls STBs. The subscriber management system requires sophisticated software, piracy protection, 24-hour call centres, and specific head-end designs, among other costs.

Hacking threat

“In the likely event that the CA system is hacked, it will mean the replacement of every STB in the country.”

She says the inclusion of encryption and CA will definitely increase the cost of the STB. The amount will not be clear until a CA system has been chosen. (There are many CA systems commercially available and one of these would have to be mandated for the market.)

However, the cost to the consumer is not the only issue, adds Keene-Young. The cost to free-to-air broadcasters of establishing and managing a CA system will run into hundreds of millions of rands per annum.

Keene-Young says in the UK the Freeview box is now available at retailers for as little as £12 (R150).

“An SA box of the same basic type would be more expensive because we have chosen Mpeg-4 as opposed to Mpeg-2 (a decision e.tv agrees with). However, the Mpeg4 costs will come down in the medium-term, while the cost of including and maintaining CA would not.”

The SABC and e.tv are to begin a joint free-to-air trial in 3 000 households from 1 November. The STB units to be used will not have full CA software installed.

Source: ITWeb – Paul Vecchiatto