Wednesday, September 21, 2011

BREAKING. South African government wants digital TV control with DTT; M-Net objects to the set top box control system.

The South African government wants to control television in the country, specifically control of the access control mechanism once television broadcasting switches from analogue to digital broadcasting or digital terrestrial television (DTT).

Not only is the government considering a conditional access system – or encryption – for the set top boxes (STBs), the government also wants to own the system of access control. Meanwhile M-Net has objected against encryption for non- pay TV in South Africa. The encryption or so-called STB Control addition will add another R31 to the estimated STB price of R700 that South African viewers will have to cough up.

There are no examples of any terrestrial public broadcast services or commercial free-to-air broadcast on DTT being encrypted elsewhere in the world.

''Who should own the system of access control?'' asked the minister of communications Roy Padayachie yesterday in parliament while discussing DTT. ''In the way the process has unfolded, the responsibility to decide on these questions was left to the broadcasters. The current state of play in the world is that the ownership of the system must be in the hands of the state and not in the hands of the existing broadcasters. If it is in the hands of the state, we would then ensure that new broadcasters can enter the terrain as the broadcasting landscape changes and that new entrants will not be particularly disadvantaged in the future,'' Roy Padayachie said.

South African TV households will have to buy a STB to continue to receive broadcasting signals and TV channels when South Africa starts the switch to DTT known as digital migration. The government has said the switch-over is to start in earnest from April 2012. That's when broadcasters, the SABC and M-Net will all launch more digital TV channels as a switch-over incentive for viewers, while continuing to broadcast their current analogue channels. That process known as ''dual illumination'' will continue until December 2013 according to the government, when the old analogue signal will be switched off. The SABC and will call their combined new DTT offering Multiview with the SABC that will have 18 digital TV channels.

The South African government is now again raising the highly-controversial access control system and so-called STB Control. The amended Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy of August 2011 calls for STBs with STB Control that would ''enable addressable messaging and the ability to turn off lost or stolen decoders''. Meanwhile the SABC and that in 2008 objected to the encryption of free-to-air services now suddenly want STB Control in a seemingly about-face. The SABC and have recently jointly issued a tender for the provision of STB Control solutions.

While the requirements seem reasonable, this functionality could have far reaching implications for broadcasters, TV viewers and would give sweeping power to whoever controls this mechanism. This will give the government the power to turn STBs on and off – enabling the government to decide when to allow or cut TV channels coming through the device. The government has already had one meeting with, the SABC and M-Net together regarding STB Control. M-Net objected to the set top box control system, the department of communications told parliament on Tuesday.

STB Control that encrypts video and audio content would effectively end true public free-to-air broadcasting in South Africa as it's known today. STB Control could be used to disable homes that do not have a paid-up TV license. That would result in more than half of all South African television households being cut off and no longer having access to any television services, although the government currently claims it wouldn't do that.

STB Control will have to be built into STBs and will raise the cost of the box. ''The cost of encryption will add another $4 to the STB, largely due to royalty that must be paid to the technology company that wins the reward of encryption,'' Roy Padayachie said. ''We're discussing that with, SABC, MultiChoice and Sentech.''

STB Control would also cost the viewer more money long after the initial STB purchase. Consumers would have to call to activate and reactivate STB Control, must have a telephone and money to pay for calls. STB Control would mean that STBs will only work within South Africa.

According to policy STBs must be made locally. It will be an incentive to manufacturers since grey imports would be useless. An SABS approved STB will have to be bought in South Africa which will automatically be disabled if taken outside borders. STB Control will also enable address traceability and also allow for stolen STBs to be disabled.

''STB Control would negatively impact on the ability of the South Africa viewing pubic and vulnerable groups in particular to access free to air television services,'' wrote Gerhard Petrick, an engineer and DTT expert and a former councillor of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

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