hen digital terrestrial television (DTT) arrives, we will all need decoders to receive the new TV signals. These are decoders that all pay TV customers already have. The rest of us will have to buy new ones, while others will receive theirs for free. If you want to keep watching free-toair TV (SABC, e.tv and community TV), you’ll need a decoder. In South Africa, they are also called set-top boxes.
For the past three years, there have been many stories in the news about “set-top box control”, “conditional access” and “unconditional access”.
But what does this actually mean? Why has the dispute about digital TV decoders led to two court cases and elicited three different government policy positions from three consecutive ministers? And what does it mean for you?
This is the technology in a decoder that allows broadcasters to protect their TV shows from being pirated or viewed illegally. It decides who can receive a broadcast and ensures that government-subsidised decoders are not stolen and sold in other countries. In South Africa, there are three options:
Simple set-top box control (also known as unconditional access) Conditional access Encryption Simple control, the kind called for by Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi, is a basic on/off switch for preventing theft, as in the case of stolen cellphones.
Encryption is used to protect against piracy by scrambling the broadcast signal while it is on its way to your TV set. The decoder then unscrambles it as it arrives.
Conditional access, which is key for pay TV broadcasters, has encryption and allows them to control who has access to their broadcasts.
Encryption and conditional access are two different technologies that can be offered in the same solution, depending on the broadcaster’s needs.