TV access war must stop – Carrim

Minister hopes to settle dispute on conditional access technology to see SA enter the broadband era

No matter which way the long-running battle around conditional access to digital TV pans out, someone is going to sue the government, according to Communications Minister Yunus Carrim.

The minister is, however, hoping for a consensual decision on conditional access when he brings broadcasters together for a crucial mediated meeting this month.

It is this long-simmering dispute, fuelled mainly by the millions at stake, that Carrim says is holding back South Africa’s stalled migration from analogue to digital terrestrial TV (DTTV).

The deadline is now June 2015.

That migration is key to freeing up the radio frequency spectrum needed for radically better broadband and all the game-changing economic possibilities.

Carrim says the meeting will be mediated by a mutually agreed, but yet to be named, independent facilitator with good negotiating skills and is technical savvy.

“It’s sensitive,” Carrim told City Press. “As government, we accept our share of responsibility for the delays in digital migration, but unless we get a measure of consensus among the broadcasters and other contending parties, we aren’t going to be able to move swiftly forward.”

If the meeting succeeds and consensus is reached, the minister says the roll-out can begin within months. If not, he says government will make a call – but will at least have heard all the arguments.

The inclusion of conditional access technology in the roll-out of set-top boxes will have permanent ramifications for competition in the broadcasting sector.

Without it, DTTV cannot cater for pay channels. If it is included, it would become technically possible to cut viewers off if, for instance, they do not pay their TV licence fees.

Among the private sector broadcasters, MultiChoice is against conditional access while supports it.

Carrim says: “Even in most rapacious capitalist society, there are times when contending private sector parties find common ground that serves the common interest and what it does is then create space for them to compete in the market for viewers and listeners.

“Sentech has already provided about 80% of the country with network for DTTV and intends to reach 84% by March (next year). The remaining 16% will be serviced by satellite.

“So we’re ready. We have enough money to begin the roll-out – not complete it, but if we get going we will have a strong case with the National Treasury. The issue holding back DTTV is primarily, if not wholly, whether or not set-top boxes will enable conditional access, controlling which channels a viewer can access.”

Meanwhile, inefficient analogue broadcasting soaks up huge amounts of the spectrum needed to boost broadband quickly and cheaply.

Carrim’s Cabinet colleagues in charge of economic development, finance and public enterprises are, according to the minister, saying, ‘hey, please let’s move’”.

He further said: “I think the department itself has reached the end of its own tether and wants to get things done. We’ve been in the public domain for the wrong reasons for too long”.

Carrim told the Southern Africa Telecommunications Networks and Applications Conference (Satnac) in Stellenbosch, Western Cape, this week that the latest broadband policy draft will be discussed with relevant ministers for finalisation by the end of November.

“We are very clear. We need to ensure access to cheaper, faster, better-quality broadband. It is long overdue,” he told the conference.

Beyond faster internet, broadband offers “life-changing transformative technologies” crucial to growth and development by linking people to health, education and other government services and bridging the urban-rural digital divide.

While many government services are available online, access is limited “to those who can afford it”, according to Carrim.

Without the political will and cooperation from the private sector, broadband penetration and usage won’t improve, says Carrim, who believes it should be seen as a “national imperative”.

The prohibitive cost of internet access “needs to be addressed more actively”, along with a closer look at why the regulatory scheme has failed to lower prices.

He asked delegates at Satnac why it was that South African companies charged citizens more for the same access they offered cheaper elsewhere.

“We thought charity begins at home, but in telecoms it seems it begins elsewhere,” said Carrim.

But all of this needs a spectrum policy (the deadline for which is March next year) and getting digital migration under way. And that largely depends on the success of this month’s meeting to settle the set-top box dispute.

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