Communications Minister Yunus Carrim on Tuesday slapped down the SABC over control of set-top boxes, saying the public broadcaster “cannot decide for government”. An estimated 11-million households will have to buy a set-top box, to enable their TV sets to receive the new digital signal.

Mr Carrim’s comments came after the SABC said last week it would not support the inclusion of a conditional access or encryption system for set-top boxes due to be phased in when the broadcaster moves from the current system to digital. Conditional access is typically used by pay-television operators to restrict viewing to paying subscribers.

Negotiations between key stakeholders including the SABC, and MultiChoice have failed to yield an agreement on set-top box control.

This bickering is seen as a major threat to the roll-out of digital terrestrial television (DTT), which is meant to be completed by 2015., however, has argued that conditional access was also needed in free-to-air set-top boxes to allow broadcasters to compete more effectively with DStv.

DStv provider MultiChoice was reported to have accused of wanting to use plans by the government to subsidise up to 5-million free-to-air set-top boxes to poorer households to subsidise its entry into the pay-TV market.

Briefing members of Parliament’s communications portfolio committee on commitments he made to it in August, Mr Carrim said while the SABC’s views were important, the broadcaster could not dictate to the government.

Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Marian Shinn had raised concern over the SABC’s statement, saying it was “unacceptable that a public servant can unilaterally decide on government policy — and expose the SABC to potentially damaging legal challenges — before Cabinet has decided on the matter”.

Mr Carrim said it will be for the Cabinet to decide on the set-top box access system on the basis of a number of criteria, such as protecting the local electronics industry and job creation.

Another consideration is what will be the “fastest, simplest and most effective way to move forward” in light of the fact that South Africa is more than five years behind schedule in migrating from analogue to digital terrestrial television. Also a factor is which possible court challenge to the Cabinet’s eventual decision, either from MultiChoice or, will prove the “least strenuous” for government to defend.

He said the department was planning to officially launch the digital migration programme, initially using satellite technology, while the DTT (set-top box) control matters are being resolved.

The facilitation process on set-top control began in mid-September, Mr Carrim said. “The facilitation team has finalised its report and it is being processed for a Cabinet decision by December 4.”

Source: BDLive – Bekezela Phakathi