The South African pay-TV broadcaster M-Net is again warning over the South African government's attempt to push encryption into free-to-air public, digital television when the switch to digital terrestrial television (DTT) starts.
In a new print advert, M-Net is warning the country that the South African government's plan to force a built-in encryption system into set-top boxes (STBs) for free, public television under a digital television dispensation is and will be "expensive, complicated and unnecessary".
TV experts are warning about the next "e-toll disaster" for television waiting to happen when tens of millions of South African TV households – still largely kept in the dark about the looming switch from analogue to DTT in a process known as digital migration – discover that they will be forced to pay hundreds of rands to buy a STB just to continue to watch the free and public TV channels they're currently watching.
Viewers will have to pay R800 or more – and in some cases be forced to also buy an antenna – just to keep watching their favourite soap like Generations, news bulletin or local TV drama.
An encryption system will further complicate the boxes and the system, and up the price.
South Africa's digital migration process is hugely delayed while the cost of implementation, as well as the cost to consumers of the TV boxes, keeps escalating.
The government which is still to explain the subsidy process clearly, will only subsidise the "poorest of the poor" but even they will still have to fork over hundreds of rands to buy a STB.
Digital TV: More about jobs than about viewers
If an encryption system has to be built into STBs – irrespective of whether it is used or not – it will make the STBs more expensive due to the technology and hardware (the additional parts) as well as encryption software licensing rights.
However, it will also create a protective "bubble" for the local decoder manufacturing industry. It will create jobs because it will mean that only STBs made in South Africa, with an encryption system for public television, and custom-made for South Africa, will work here.
Imported overseas STBs or TV sets with built-in digital TV receivers that adhere to the SABS standards for these decoders and which may be cheaper, better or more desired by consumers, will never work if South African free-to-air television is forced to have STBs with a built-in encryption system.
The South African government wants to use the switch to digital television for job creation, having shifted the focus away from the ordinary TV viewer during the delayed process the past half a decade.
Job creation is now the overriding concern – which is why the battle of encryption of free television is raging, instead of what is best for the tens of millions of TV viewers who will have to buy new technology in order to keep watching television.
Entire TV biz affected
The majority of South African broadcasters – all community TV stations, the SABC, MultiChoice which runs DStv, and M-Net – are opposed to the encryption of public access television. E.tv and some local manufacturers want an encryption system, saying it will protect TV content and local STB manufacturing.
Although M-Net is a pay-TV broadcaster with its own TVdecoders (which contains an encryption system since it is a subscription television service), it is highly concerned about the issue of encryption for free television.
The South African pay-TV broadcaster plans to do a "hard swop" of decoders (asking all its subscribers to bring in and fast-change to new decoders) but will still be impacted by the massive switch because although it is a pay-TV broadcaster, it also remains a terrestrial broadcaster.
While M-Net can switch easier because the company knows who its subscribers are and where they live, it will be much more difficult to get the millions of people watching SABC channels and e.tv channels to switch.
However, the SABC, e.tv and M-Net will jointly have to keep broadcasting their currently analogue signals as well as their new digital signal(s) until enough people have switched – a period known as “dual illumination”.
Or put in another way: M-Net, although it is a pay-TV terrestrial broadcaster, cannot switch off its current, old analogue signal, unless the free-to-air terrestrial broadcasters SABC and e.tv can also switch off theirs.
It means that all the South African broadcasters are joined at the hip in a sense when it comes to DTT. Athough an M-Net would conceivably be able to complete its switch faster, it wouldn’t be able to turn its analogue signal off and will have to wait for the SABC and e.tv.