The Democratic Alliance says communications minister Yunus Carrim must explain why the SABC has decided to abandon encryption in digital television set-top boxes before cabinet has pronounced on the matter.

The SABC “unilaterally” decided on government policy when it announced last week that it would not support the inclusion of a conditional access or encryption system in the set-top boxes South Africans will need to access digital terrestrial television.

That’s the view of Democratic Alliance MP Marian Shinn, who says SABC acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng has “exposed the SABC to potentially damaging legal challenges” and made a call on conditional access before government has pronounced on the matter.

In July, the SABC agreed, in a commercial deal with DStv broadcaster MultiChoice, that the public broadcaster would not carry any of its free-to-air channels over a system that uses conditional access or a control system.

Conditional access is typically used by pay-television operators to restrict viewing to paying subscribers, but e.tv has argued strongly that it’s also needed in free-to-air set-top boxes to allow free-to-air broadcasters to compete more effectively with DStv.

E.tv argues that a control system is needed, among other things, to ensure content suppliers are willing to provide a broader range of material.

But MultiChoice has accused e.tv of wanting to use plans by government to subsidise up to 5m free-to-air set-top boxes to poorer households to subsidise its entry into the pay-TV market. In turn, e.tv has said it has no plans to use the government-subsidised boxes to offer pay TV.

Now Shinn says she wants communications minister Yunus Carrim to explain Motsoeneng’s decision that the SABC will not support conditional access.

“Carrim told media last week that he would soon present to cabinet his department’s recommendations on the digital migration policy review started by his predecessor,” Shinn says. “Part of this review was to determine the need for an access control system on the set-top boxes which is needed to view its programmes once digital broadcasting is switched on.”

Shinn says that in July, Motsoeneng signed a deal with MultiChoice that included a clause stating that, should the SABC’s free-to-air channels be made available on the public broadcaster’s platforms on an encrypted basis, MultiChoice could cancel a R553m deal to carry news and entertainment channels on DStv.

“This deal [with MultiChoice] was signed while the department of communications’ policy review was in progress and Carrim has recently again confirmed that the digital migration policy was still being reviewed,” says Shinn.

“Requests to the portfolio committee on communications’ chair, Eric Kholwane, that the minister explain how the SABC could make such a deal and whether the process of negotiating it was legal, has had no formal response,” she adds.

Carrim is due to meet with the portfolio committee on Tuesday to discuss progress with the department of communications’ list of priorities. Shinn says he must use the opportunity to “explain how this situation has evolved and the financial and reputational risks that the government is now exposed to”.

“The minister must also account for the credibility blow this has delivered to the government’s strategy to boost the electronics industry’s capabilities through producing set-top boxes with access control systems. We need to know whether Motsoeneng runs the cabinet as well as the SABC, and whether cabinet is contemplating any action against him.”

Source: Tech Central – Duncan McLeod