CityPress - - Business - LLOYD GEDYE busi­ness@city­press.co.za

The North Gaut­eng High Court has brought a halt to free-to-air broad­caster e.tv’s at­tempt to get con­di­tional ac­cess and en­cryp­tion in­cluded with the gov­ern­ment-sub­sidised 5 mil­lion set-top boxes that will be dis­trib­uted by gov­ern­ment to poor TV-own­ing house­holds.

The judg­ment sig­nals the end of the bat­tle over con­di­tional ac­cess and en­cryp­tion that has raged in the broad­cast­ing sec­tor since 2012.

It has also given gov­ern­ment the go-ahead to be­gin the in­tro­duc­tion of Dig­i­tal Ter­res­trial Tele­vi­sion (DTT) mi­gra­tion af­ter years of de­lays.

DTT mi­gra­tion is the pe­riod in which South African house­holds con­vert their tele­vi­sion sig­nal from ana­logue to dig­i­tal us­ing a decoder called a set-top box and an aerial.

E.tv had taken Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Faith Muthambi to court to get her amend­ments to the Broad­cast Dig­i­tal Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy re­viewed.

Muthambi gazetted the amend­ments in March, af­ter the pre­vi­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter, Yunus Car­rim, had gazetted his own amend­ments in De­cem­ber 2013.

The chan­nel was con­test­ing Muthambi’s de­ci­sion to re­move con­di­tional ac­cess from the pol­icy and in­sist on a sim­ple set-top box con­trol.

The broad­caster’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Mark Rosin, said: “E.tv is dis­ap­pointed with the court judg­ment and is con­sid­er­ing its op­tions, but re­mains com­mit­ted to the roll-out of DTT and other dig­i­tal plat­forms.”

There are three key tech­nolo­gies: a sim­ple set-top box con­trol, con­di­tional ac­cess and en­cryp­tion. Sim­ple set-top box con­trol, as called for in the cur­rent Cab­i­net po­si­tion an­nounced by Muthambi, is aimed at pro­tect­ing the gov­ern­ment-sub­sidised set-top boxes from be­ing sold over­seas. Con­di­tional ac­cess, which is key for pay-TV broad­cast­ers, al­lows broad­cast­ers to con­trol who has ac­cess to their broad­casts and, be­cause of this, re­quires en­cryp­tion of the sig­nal. En­cryp­tion is used to pro­tect broad­casted con­tent from be­ing pi­rated. It does this by scram­bling the sig­nal so that it is pro­tected on the jour­ney to the TV set. The set-top box un­scram­bles the sig­nal so the viewer can watch the broad­cast.

En­cryp­tion and con­di­tional ac­cess are two dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies that can be of­fered in the same tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tion.

Broad­cast­ing ser­vice providers may de­cide to have ei­ther one of these tech­nolo­gies, and the broad­caster can opt in, depend­ing on its needs.

Muthambi wel­comed court rul­ing.

“The rul­ing ... will now al­low the dig­i­tal mi­gra­tion process to progress and be con­cluded as soon as pos­si­ble so that the ben­e­fits can be re­alised,” said the min­is­ter’s state­ment.

Vasili Vass, e.tv’s group head of cor­po­rate af­fairs, said the com­pany was study­ing the judg­ment.

Jackie Rak­itla, Mul­tiChoice’s gen­eral man­ager of cor­po­rate af­fairs, wel­comed the court’s rul­ing on the dig­i­tal-mi­gra­tion pol­icy.

“We can now start the jour­ney of mi­grat­ing from ana­logue to dig­i­tal with all the ben­e­fits dig­i­tal mi­gra­tion will bring,” said Rak­itla. E.tv was or­dered to pay the le­gal costs of the min­is­ter, the SABC, the Elec­tronic Media Net­work and the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tur­ers in Elec­tronic Com­po­nents.

In the judg­ment, Judge WRC Prinsloo ruled that Muthambi was well within her pow­ers to make the changes to the DTT pol­icy and that her ac­tions were “rea­son­able and ra­tio­nal”, “pro­ce­du­rally fair” and “law­ful”.

“E.tv has had a full bite at the cherry,” wrote Prinsloo. “It should not be seen to com­plain about a lack of con­sul­ta­tion. What e.tv fails to ex­plain, or ad­e­quately ex­plain, is why it needs to en­crypt its sig­nals for free-to-air DTT pur­poses. It is the only free-to-air broad­caster that sup­ports the idea.”

Prinsloo ruled that en­cryp­tion was “not nec­es­sary” for free-to-air broad­cast­ing pur­poses and had more neg­a­tive fea­tures than pos­i­tive ones.

“Some of these neg­a­tive fea­tures di­rectly im­pact on the in­ter­ests of the im­pov­er­ished 5 mil­lion, who are soon to be sub­sidised free-to-air view­ers,” wrote the judge. “This is­sue does not ap­pear too high on the pri­or­ity list of e.tv.

“E.tv now ap­pears to in­sist on the gov­ern­ment fund­ing the en­cryp­tion fa­cil­ity for the sake of e.tv’s own busi­ness plans and fi­nan­cial well­be­ing.”

In its af­fi­davit, Mul­tiChoice ar­gued that the lack of con­di­tional ac­cess and en­cryp­tion in the set-top box would not pre­vent free-to-air broad­cast­ers from se­cur­ing high-def­i­ni­tion con­tent.

“The ma­jor­ity of free-to-air broad­cast­ers world­wide broad­cast their sig­nals un­en­crypted, and ob­tain and broad­cast high-def­i­ni­tion con­tent,” reads Mul­tiChoice’s af­fi­davit.

Mul­tiChoice ac­cused e.tv of at­tempt­ing to “usurp gov­ern­ment pol­icy for its own com­mer­cial ad­van­tage”, and ar­gued it should roll out its own set-top boxes.

In its af­fi­davit, the SABC ar­gued that the costs of in­clud­ing con­di­tional ac­cess and en­cryp­tion in the set-top box should rule it out as an op­tion.

The SABC ar­gued that there would be an im­me­di­ate on­ce­off cost of $2 (R24.50) per set-top box to equip each one with en­cryp­tion ca­pa­bil­ity, and said this would in­crease the cost of sub­si­dis­ing 5 mil­lion house­holds.

The SABC also ar­gued that the broad­cast­ers would have to pay in the re­gion of R562 mil­lion ev­ery year for the en­cryp­tion-soft­ware roy­al­ties. The mi­gra­tion from free-to-air ana­logue to dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion for ev­ery­one prom­ises to de­liver a host of ben­e­fits and eco­nomic spin-offs.

Dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion de­liv­ers bet­ter pic­ture and sound qual­ity, as well as ap­pli­ca­tions such as elec­tronic pro­gramme guides.

When the mi­gra­tion pe­riod is com­pleted and ana­logue trans­mit­ters are turned off, a large amount of ra­dio fre­quency spec­trum will be re­leased, which can then be used for new broad­cast­ing and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices, such as broad­band.

In South Africa, the mi­gra­tion has been se­ri­ously de­layed by court cases and red tape in the al­lo­ca­tion of con­tracts for the pro­duc­tion of set-top boxes, which will con­vert the new sig­nals for old tele­vi­sion sets.


Faith Muthambi

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