WHEN it meets this week, the cabinet should reject the idea of incorporating conditional access in the subsidised set-top boxes that poorer households will use to receive digital terrestrial television. It is an issue that has polarised the broadcasting industry for far too long.

This Wednesday, Communications Minister Yunus Carrim will present a range of documents and proposals to the cabinet, among them a much revised national broadband plan and strategy. Also on the agenda will be proposals to get a move on with the long-delayed migration from analogue to digital television, including finding a solution to the impasse caused by the war between the proponents and opponents of conditional access in free-to-air TV.

South Africa’s inability to free up spectrum for broadband through TV migration is a threat to economic growth. The cabinet must use its meeting to put the raging battle between e.tv and MultiChoice to rest by expressing a firm view on conditional access, and both camps should accept the outcome.

To be fair, it is a complex issue and each side usually advances good arguments. But, ultimately, the benefits of rejecting conditional access outweigh its adoption. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay for a system that will chiefly benefit private broadcasters.

MultiChoice, which owns DStv, argues strongly that including conditional access in the up to five million set-top boxes that will be subsidised by the government will amount to unfair competition. It is tempting to reject the company’s argument, given that the broadcaster thoroughly dominates South Africa’s pay-TV market, but it has a point. Introducing conditional access -which means viewers will have to use a smart card — will add unnecessary complexity to the digital terrestrial TV project.

Conditional access is a key element in pay-TV. It is used to switch off nonpaying customers and to control access to services. MultiChoice thinks e.tv wants the government to subsidise its entry into the pay-TV market. But e.tv has rejected this accusation, saying it has no intention of using the free-to-air set-top boxes to offer a pay service and that it needs the system, among other things, to ensure it can secure access to more up-to-date programming from international content suppliers, allowing it to compete more effectively with DStv.

But as one top ICT industry figure put it this week, the debate has long since moved on. Set-top boxes made sense a decade ago when South Africa first started talking about the migration project, but this is no longer the case. Many manufacturers already include a receiver or converter in their sets that allows consumers to watch digital TV without the separate cost of a set-top box.

Instead, if the government believes there is a need to offer a subsidy to poorer households, it should find a way of cutting the cost of flatscreen TVs with integrated digital receivers. Already, the cost of some 32-inch models has fallen below R2,000 — not out of the reach of many South Africans — so do we need to spend the money at all?

Carrim told parliament recently that the cabinet would consider a number of factors when deciding whether to support conditional access, including which approach would best protect the local electronics industry and create jobs. But this is a red herring. The benefits of getting a move on with digital migration, allowing telecoms operators to use the spectrum that will be freed up, have been clearly spelt out in a number of reports. The benefits of rapid migration far outweigh attempts to protect local manufacturers.

Some industry players argue that conditional access will help to protect the local electronics manufacturing industry, but the question is whether the cost of this sort of protectionism is worth it.

Emerging black set-top box manufacturers are sharply divided on the issue. Surely it would be better to open up the airwaves to as many broadcasters as possible — the digital airwaves will be able to carry as many as 140 channels — and to begin fostering a vibrant local content production industry in the process?

Carrim told parliament that the cabinet would consider what is the “fastest, simplest and most effective way to move forward” given that the country is already so far behind schedule. If the government is honest with itself, it can only reach one conclusion: it should reject conditional access and fast-track the move to digital.

Source: BDLive – Duncan McLeod