Tech: If things had gone to plan…

Finweek English Edition - - Contents - By Lloyd Gedye

Twelve years and R10bn later, we are still no closer to mi­grat­ing South Africa’s tele­vi­sion sig­nals from ana­logue to dig­i­tal. What ap­pears to be clear, though, is that lo­cal con­sumers will be stuck with the same old choices.

if things had gone to plan, South Africans would have been en­joy­ing dig­i­tal ter­res­trial tele­vi­sion (DTT) since late 2011. If things had gone to plan, South Africa’s tele­vi­sion land­scape would look quite dif­fer­ent to­day to the one we are cur­rently faced with. But things did not go to plan. It is 2018, and we are still no clearer on how gov­ern­ment ac­tu­ally plans to mi­grate the coun­try’s tele­vi­sion sig­nals from ana­logue to dig­i­tal. All we’ve had is de­lays and de­lays and de­lays.

As if these de­lays were not in­sult enough to the South African tele­vi­sion con­sumer, gov­ern­ment an­nounced in Oc­to­ber that they are chang­ing track again. The never-end­ing DTT saga just keeps on – 12 years and more than R10bn later.

For those who missed the last 12 years of in­tense lob­by­ing, lit­i­ga­tion and in­de­ci­sion, South Africa is at­tempt­ing to mi­grate its tele­vi­sion sig­nal from ana­logue to dig­i­tal.

It’s a process that has been hotly con­tested, with al­le­ga­tions of un­der­handed tac­tics sur­fac­ing against many of the par­ties in­volved.

The rea­son for the mi­gra­tion is that dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion uses a lot less spec­trum than ana­logue tele­vi­sion. There­fore spec­trum, which is a scarce and valu­able re­source, will be freed up for other uses like broad­band ser­vices.

With the con­tin­u­ous de­lays, it is no won­der then that mo­bile gi­ants like MTN and Vo­da­com are jump­ing up and down clam­our­ing for spec­trum.

Gov­ern­ment’s DTT mi­gra­tion plan had in­cluded the pro­vi­sion of 5m free set-top boxes to low-in­come con­sumers. This was to en­sure that those poorer house­holds were not dis­con­nected when the ana­logue tele­vi­sion sig­nal was fi­nally turned off.

En­cryp­tion loses rel­e­vance

How­ever, com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter Nomvula Mokonyane an­nounced a “re­vised de­liv­ery model” for DTT in Oc­to­ber, stat­ing that gov­ern­ment will no longer pro­cure set-top boxes. In­stead, it will of­fer vouch­ers to con­sumers to re­deem at com­mer­cial re­tail­ers.

The depart­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tions is now call­ing the new model a “mar­ket-based ap­proach”, where gov­ern­ment does not stip­u­late the set-top box con­sumers choose.

This ef­fec­tively means that all those years that the tele­vi­sion sec­tor and gov­ern­ment spent fight­ing over whether the DTT set­top boxes will have en­cryp­tion in­cluded in them or not, have been ren­dered re­dun­dant.

Keep in mind that South Africa missed the In­ter­na­tional Tele­coms Union’s (ITU) global June 2015 dead­line for mi­gra­tion, be­cause it was fight­ing over this mat­ter – some­thing that is now to­tally ir­rel­e­vant. A lot of lawyers made money, gov­ern­ment wasted money and we are back to square one.

It also means that the dream of an in­ter­op­er­a­ble set-top box is now dead.

At the height of the set-top box en­cryp­tion de­bate, many stake­hold­ers that I in­ter­viewed spoke about the fu­ture of South African tele­vi­sion, where homes had one set-top box into which they could place smart­cards from var­i­ous broad­cast­ers.

The dream es­sen­tially meant that broad­cast­ers had to com­pete on con­tent, not on plat­form. The fu­ture of tele­vi­sion was not go­ing to be a choice be­tween DStv, OpenView or StarSat. It would in­volve de­ci­sions about the spe­cific con­tent from ev­ery broad­caster that you as a con­sumer wanted to pur­chase.

It was a vi­sion that spoke to an em­pow­ered con­sumer, one that was not stuck be­tween a hand­ful of bad choices, but one that was open to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of con­tent avail­able.

That dream is now dead.

When broad­cast­ers have ex­clu­sive use of the means of de­liv­ery for their con­tent, there can’t be real com­pe­ti­tion. This is be­cause they are not com­pet­ing just on con­tent, but on con­tent and plat­form.

It’s a sit­u­a­tion that is not all that dis­sim­i­lar from re­cent calls by telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies dur­ing the Com­pe­ti­tion Com­mis­sion’s mar­ket in­quiry hear­ings into the cost of data in South Africa.

The telcos want the whole­sale mar­ket on MTN and Vo­da­com’s mo­bile net­works to be opened up to com­pe­ti­tion. They say that if they can com­pete fairly against MTN and Vo­da­com – on-sell­ing ca­pac­ity on the mo­bile gi­ants’ net­works – this will bring data prices down.

The pro­posal is again not dis­sim­i­lar to the struc­tural sep­a­ra­tion that hap­pened to Telkom in 2013. By all ac­counts the sep­a­ra­tion of Telkom has cre­ated a fiercely com­pet­i­tive ADSL broad­band mar­ket.

So why not the same for the mo­bile data mar­ket? Why not the same for the tele­vi­sion mar­ket?

As to whether an in­ter­op­er­a­ble set-top box would have de­liv­ered a tele­vi­sion sec­tor that looks to serve con­sumers with myr­iad af­ford­able qual­ity con­tent choices, we can only spec­u­late.

What we know at this stage, is that con­sumers will get a voucher. With the voucher, they’ll be able to pur­chase a decoder of their choice, but it will be a set-top box that locks them in to one tele­vi­sion ser­vice provider. For now, it looks like we are go­ing to be stuck with the same old choices. ■ ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

It was a vi­sion that spoke to an em­pow­ered con­sumer, one that wasn’t stuck be­tween a hand­ful of bad choices.

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