Thursday, March 6, 2014

As South Africa delays digital terrestrial television migration, imported multi-functional set-top boxes are already on sale in the country.

With South Africa's long-stalled switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT) - a process known as digital migration - going nowhere, South African TV viewers can already buy imported, yet illegal, multi-functional set-top boxes (STBs).

South Africa's TV industry is supposed to flip from analogue to digital broadcasting but the country, due to multiple delays, have fallen behind countries such as even Zimbabwe and Rwanda as manufacturers, broadcasters and law makers continue to bicker.

As South Africa can no longer make and will miss the international agreed upon deadline of June 2015 from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) by which to switch of analogue TV broadcasts, the country has also become profitable for sellers of imported - yet illegal - STBs with which viewers can already watch digital TV channels.

Not only can South African viewers watch free-to-air digital TV channels with these STBs, but the boxes also allow viewers to record TV shows, and to even save that programming to external storage like USBs and external hard drives.

These STBs are already on sale in South Africa and cost cheaper and can now be bought long before the locally manufactured STBs which will cost around R800 per box are produced and sold.

The South African government has failed to award tenders to local STB manufacturers in a request for tenders which was issued last year, lapsed, and will have to be reissued.

Meanwhile broadcasters and manufacturers are fighting and deadlocked over the inclusion - or not - of what is known as a Conditional Access (CA) system.

A CA system is built-in hardware and software with which broadcasters and manufacturers would be able to "lock" or encrypt digital television signals. While wants a CA system in STBs, the SABC, MultiChoice, M-Net and community TV stations in South Africa are all against it.

A CA system would make the STBs more expensive. A CA system would also "protect" a South African STBs industry, since only boxes made in South Africa would work, imported STBs wouldn't be able to decrypt signals, and boxes taken outside of South Africa's TV broadcasting borders would be "turned off".

"There is little to stop pirate set-top boxes from flooding the South African market and destroying the local manufacturing market because South African manufacturers will comply with the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) but won't be able to compete with cheap, low quality, foreign STBs," says Bronwyn Keene-Young, the group chief operating officer (COO) of

Keene-Young says the illegal STBs already on sale in South Africa in large metropolitan areas from Johannesburg to Cape Town do not meet the SABS specifications.

"With a lack of copy-protection mechanisms on the HD output to the TV, and into the personal video recording (PVR) functionality on these boxes, the broadcast and manufacturing industry would need to rely on the already heavily-burdened law enforcement agencies to stop these boxes from entering the country," says Keene-Young.

"Having the broadcast signal protected at the commercial launch of DTT will go a long way to make sure that these boxes become redundant and therefore pose no threat to the local manufacturing industry".