Letter to Minister of Communications: On Why South Africa Needs Conditional Access
Attention: Hon. Faith Muthambi
Minister of Communications
26 January 2015
RE: On Why South Africa Needs Conditional Access
We have written to you and your predecessors on this matter before, with hopes of further engagement that would bring clarity and closure to the issue.
We do not need to belabour the urgency with which the broadcasting digital migration project must be launched and concluded. With the June ITU deadline looming, and no hopes for an extension, every day that goes by without your and government taking the right decision on conditional access and launching DTT compromises the future of free-to-air (FTA) television.
Minister, you stand at the cusp of achieving what none of your predecessors has been able to do. Contrary to what satellite subscription broadcasters, who have no stake in terrestrial broadcasting may say, conditional access is central to securing a stable and competitive broadcasting environment that offers diverse and affordable services for the benefit of all the people of South Africa.
We have outlined some of the benefits of conditional access for FTA terrestrial broadcasters and the public at large in our previous letter to you. A conditional access system in the government manufactured set-top boxes (STBs) is crucial for the success of FTA because without conditional access:
- FTA broadcasters and the majority of TV-owning households in South Africa will not be able to access current high-definition (HD) content that can compete with that offered by established subscription broadcasting services. Currently, because we do not have an encryption service such as that conditional service offers, FTA broadcasters and viewers are denied such content because they cannot protect it from signal piracy. This content is thus only available to well-established subscription service providers, maintaining a de-facto monopoly in the broadcasting market-economy. In advancing and securing a pro-conditional access position, you and government would be introducing a sorely-needed pro-competitive measure into the broadcasting environment for the benefit of the people of South Africa.
- Users of FTA terrestrial subscription services will not benefit from a uniform standard user interface to ensure that everyone has uniform quality of service in operating their STB. Linked to this is that STBs will not be addressable, which means that users will not have the benefit of receiving personalised messages, in the language of their choice, to be supported in resolving whatever problems they might experience with the quality of their signal or the STB itself. By not advancing and securing a pro-conditional access position for us all, you would be undermining five years of your own valiant advocacy in Parliament for uniform quality of broadcasting services for all the people of South Africa – most especially the rural poor.
Minister, 13 months ago, even your predecessor and government recognised the importance of conditional access in the government manufactured STBs. Some of the benefits that informed Cabinet’s decision of 4 December 2014 which provided for the inclusion of conditional access included:
- Ensuring that the government subsidy is used productively.
Because, with conditional access, government manufactured STBs will be addressable, and they can be protected from theft and unauthorised use remotely.
- Stimulating the local electronics industry and create jobs.
There are already a number of companies in South Africa which have developed their own STB design, and more will follow if the sector is not compromised by interference from cheap, non-compliant imports which will cause problems for both users and service providers.
- Reducing prospects of the South African market being flooded by cheap STBs that are not fully functional.
South African companies will be best placed to manufacture STBs for use in the South African market because they will be authorised to support the conditional access software. Encryption will prevent the flooding of South Africa with cheap foreign imports because these will not be able to unscramble encrypted broadcast signals.
- Reducing the extent of monopolisation and encourage competition by creating space for new players in the pay television market without unfairly benefitting from the government subsidy.
We believe that Cabinet’s decision in this regard was the correct one, and we depend on you to ensure that it is fully realised by your finalisation and gazetting of the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy to this effect. We attach at this link our position on conditional access supporting Cabinet’s decision for your further reference.
Minister, let us not allow the undoing of the great efforts that have been put into improving the lives of our people. Please act now to ensure the inclusion of conditional access in government manufactured STBs, which remains a critical step in moving South Africa forward into the digital era.