South Africa is counting down to the deadline for digital terrestrial television but it is likely to go whooshing by because we are far from ready to move from analogue to digital broadcasting, writes Glenda Nevill.
If anyone thought the March briefing by communications minister Faith Muthambi to parliament’s portfolio committee on communications would shed light on South Africa’s twisted road to migrating to digital terrestrial television (DTT) has had to think again. Far from clarifying the issues, the most important development in broadcasting in the past decade is as murky as ever.
MP Marian Shinn, the Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister of telecommunications and postal services, calls it an “unfolding fiasco” – and this is AFTER cabinet approved government’s Broadcast Migration Policy. It is yet to be published, but Muthambi has recommended that the control system NOT include encryption (conditional access). She told journalists encryption was “merely” a security feature that would prevent South Africa’s set top-boxes (STBs) from being used outside the country.
The decision follows years of often-heated debate over whether the STBs should be encrypted or not. Pay-TV operator MultiChoice says not; free to air broadcaster e.tv believes encryption is a must. The government has prevaricated, creating endless delays exacerbated by what Shinn calls the “revolving door”: South Africa went through five communications ministers in as many years. Plus, says Shinn, “The complexity of the project inserted inertia into the process as the various ministers were out of their depth with it.” President Jacob Zuma complicated matters further when he split telecommunications from the communications portfolio after last year’s elections and appointed former state security minister Siyabonga Cwele as its head. This started a “turf war” over which ministry should handle the digital migration process, says Shinn, adding that Muthambi emerged the victor.
In the latest instalment of the ongoing drama, e.tv has opted to take Muthambi to court. The free-to-air (FTA) broadcaster has launched an application in the Gauteng High Court to review aspects of the broadcasting digital migration (BDM) policy finalised by Muthambi. The issue, says e.tv’s chief operating officer, Mark Rosin, is that Muthambi and Cabinet have “repeatedly stated that they wished to respect the right of individual broadcasters to decide for themselves whether to encrypt their signals. However, the effect of the policy is precisely the opposite. What e.tv seeks to ensure is that the BDM policy does not prevent us making our own decision regarding encryption of our broadcast signal”.
On top of the encryption issue is confusion around the tender to manufacture the set-top boxes (STBs). Business Day reported that the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa) had given all 20 bidders a “slice of the R4.3bn tender”. It quotes CEO Zami Nkosi saying Usaasa never had the intention of awarding the hotly contested tender to one service provider. Nkosi said Usaasa intended promoting inclusivity to “increase the manufacturing and supply base’.
Shinn said no announcement was made on Usaasa’s website, but that she confirmed with one of the winning bidders that his firm was told the news by the agency. “All 20 bidders get a piece of the pie. Of these, 15 bidders will produce and supply the STBs and seven, the antennas. Some companies will supply both,” she said.
“The fact that so many bidders have been chosen to produce and supply the STBs – which must have 30% local content – indicates that intense lobbying outside the tender adjudication took place. A shortlist of four companies was presented to the Usaasa board for approval on 30 March. These four companies were deemed the most suitable bidders after extensive evaluation and site visits to determine quality production capacity and repair capabilities. The adjudication was led by Ernst & Young and included industry experts and representatives from National Treasury,” Shinn said.
“Ten days later 15 companies were announced to share the tender. The week before the board meeting a ruckus developed between the factions of the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic components (Namec) when members belonging to the one faction learned they were not on the STB short list. Now, some of them are,” said Shinn.
She later issued a statement calling on Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to step in to solve the issues delaying the process.
“This meddling in the much-delayed process must stop. I call on Deputy President Ramaphosa to act with speed, impartiality and transparency to clarify the situation and ensure that it proceeds with integrity,” Shinn said. “I chose not to seek clarity from minister of communications, Faith Muthambi, as I have reservations that she is acting impartially and in the best interests of a competitive broadcasting and manufacturing environment. She seems to be hell-bent on meddling in issues her department clearly doesn’t properly understand in order to protect vested interests,” said Shinn.
She wants Ramaphosa to clarify whether the Cabinet or the communications department had “received any legal opinions or challenges on the contradictions apparent in the latest version BDM policy that was amended without proper public consultation before Cabinet approved it on 18 March 2015. I have further asked him to be open about who has lodged these and what action is being taken on them.”
All this is playing out as South Africa hurtles towards the 17 June deadline set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as D-Day for the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting.
Bottom line: will we make the deadline? “Not even if pigs could fly,” says the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition’s co-ordinator, Sekoetlane Phamodi, bluntly, adding that government should have launched a public information campaign back in 2012, at least.
Shinn says Sentech has the transmission infrastructure in place so digital broadcasting can start on 18 June. “But those with analogue TV sets will not be able to receive the signals until they have a STB,” she says.
Shinn says former communications minister Yunus Carrim was the most effective minister as he was “fearless in taking on the broadcasters and was too honest and forthright in his approach for their liking”. She said had he been allowed to finish his work, we would be much farther down the line. Carrim recommended set-top control but also said broadcasters should decide whether they wanted to encrypt their signals.
But with a new minister at the helm, the process was delayed still further until February, when Business Day reported that the African National Congress (ANC), after its new year lekgotla, had instructed Muthambi to implement Carrim’s 2013 resolution. But what seemed like a breakthrough was not to be. Just a few days after the lekgotla, Business Day reported Muthambi’s department had prepared a memorandum for the cabinet advising against encryption.
“On the position taken, we believe the sector and the people of South Africa have been dealt a massive blow on a number of fronts,” says Phamodi. “First and foremost is the direct impact of non-encryption on the TV-viewing public. Without signal encryption, South Africa is placed in a position where it is now susceptible to the introduction of non-conformant grey import STBs into the country. Indeed, they already exist in the market for as little as R350. If we look across to Mauritius, government’s failure of encrypting signals and restricting the importation of grey goods into the territory meant that the public bought these non-conformant boxes, getting inferior quality boxes having their quality of service severely impaired and/or disrupted. In spite of Mauritius’s warnings, this is what’s coming for South Africa and it’s going to hit consumers (as well as manufacturers and retailers) in a hard way.”
“Secondly, there’s the direct impact on FTA terrestrial broadcasters which impacts on the TV-viewing public indirectly. Without the encryption of signals, FTA broadcasters will not be able to vie for access to premium content because content producers will not license their intellectual property when it risks being pirated. Certainly, the government manufactured STBs will have a high bandwidth digital content chip which will protect piracy through the box, but those non-conformant boxes (which are already in the market) I discussed earlier do not have these chips and have USB drives which enable the recording of the content being broadcast,” he said.
“The effect of this is that FTA terrestrial broadcasting will continue to be mediocre in its programming, further driving those members of the viewing public who can afford it to pay-TV platforms like DStv, resulting in a two-tiered broadcasting structure where you have quality, variety and choice being only accessible to the haves and the have not’s being relegated to receiving poor quality and extremely limited choice in programming,” Phamodi says.
Muthambi’s actions appear to contradict the position of the ANC and its alliance partners. In a joint statement issued shortly after news of Muthambi’s recalcitrance, the alliance secretariat, comprising the ANC, SACP, Cosatu and Sanco, said it “reasserted the decisions of the ANC lekgotla and further reaffirmed the need to implement the December 2013 cabinet decision in regard to digital migration”.
The secretariat said the policy recognised the potential negative cost implications for the country, should the ICU’s deadline be missed, and it urged the government to “move swiftly and with the necessary speed to effect these decisions that will ensure that the production of set-top boxes and the new generation of TVs will create tens of thousands of local South African jobs”.
Phamodi says government has said it will ensure conformant STBs have a Go Digital logo stickered on them to alert customers to the “good box” combined with the five million STBs it intends to issue for free to poor households will mitigate the problem. “This is not nearly enough because consumers don’t simply make choices based on branding and ‘official stickers’ – take Proudly South African, for example. And we also know that not all people who should qualify for the free STBs will be able to access them for any number of reasons (TV licenses, being undocumented, occupying land unlawfully and therefore having no fixed address etc). Then, there are those TV-owning households which won’t qualify for the boxes but don’t have the ability to purchase the official STB at the estimated R750 price. What happens with them?” he asked.
“In the short-term, the unholy alliance between the SABC and MultiChoice in their opposition of encryption may seem to be a win for the SABC, particularly against e.tv, but in the long-term, MultiChoice will be running all the way to the bank and to the detriment of the SABC and free-to-air broadcasters as a whole.”
The Media Online approached Muthambi’s office with questions on digital migration and when South Africa could expect to make the transition but, at the time of publication, had not received a response.
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