If things had gone to plan… | Fin24

If things had gone to plan…

Nov 05 2018 13:00
Lloyd Gedye

If things had gone to plan, South Africans would have been enjoying digital terrestrial television (DTT) since late 2011. 

If things had gone to plan, South Africa’s television landscape would look quite different today to the one we are currently faced with.

But things did not go to plan.

It is 2018, and we are still no clearer on how government actually plans to migrate the country’s television signals from analogue to digital. 

All we’ve had is delays and delays and delays.

As if these delays were not insult enough to the South African television consumer, government announced in October that they are changing track again. 

The never-ending DTT saga just keeps on  – 12 years and more than R10bn later.

For those who missed the last 12 years of intense lobbying, litigation and indecision, South Africa is attempting to migrate its television signal from analogue to digital. 

It’s a process that has been hotly contested, with allegations of underhanded tactics surfacing against many of the parties involved.

The reason for the migration is that digital television uses a lot less spectrum than analogue television. 

Therefore spectrum, which is a scarce and valuable resource, will be freed up for other uses like broadband services.

With the continuous delays, it is no wonder then that mobile giants like MTN and Vodacom are jumping up and down clamouring for spectrum.

Government’s DTT migration plan had included the provision of 5m free set-top boxes to low-income consumers. 

This was to ensure that those poorer households were not disconnected when the analogue television signal was finally turned off.

Encryption loses relevance

However, communications minister Nomvula Mokonyane announced a “revised delivery model” for DTT in October, stating that government will no longer procure set-top boxes. 

Instead, it will offer vouchers to consumers to redeem at commercial retailers.

The department of communications is now calling the new model a “market-based approach”, where government does not stipulate the set-top box consumers choose.

This effectively means that all those years that the television sector and government spent fighting over whether the DTT set-top boxes will have encryption included in them or not, have been rendered redundant.

Keep in mind that South Africa missed the International Telecoms Union’s (ITU) global June 2015 deadline for migration, because it was fighting over this matter – something that is now totally irrelevant. 

A lot of lawyers made money, government wasted money and we are back to square one.

It also means that the dream of an interoperable set-top box is now dead.

At the height of the set-top box encryption debate, many stakeholders that I interviewed spoke about the future of South African television, where homes had one set-top box into which they could place smartcards from various broadcasters.

The dream essentially meant that broadcasters had to compete on content, not on platform. 

The future of television was not going to be a choice between DStv, OpenView or StarSat. 

It would involve decisions about the specific content from every broadcaster that you as a consumer wanted to purchase.

It was a vision that spoke to an empowered consumer, one that was not stuck between a handful of bad choices, but one that was open to the possibilities of content available. 

That dream is now dead.

When broadcasters have exclusive use of the means of delivery for their content, there can’t be real competition. 

This is because they are not competing just on content, but on content and platform.

It’s a situation that is not all that dissimilar from recent calls by telecommunication companies during the Competition Commission’s market inquiry hearings into the cost of data in South Africa.

The telcos want the wholesale market on MTN and Vodacom’s mobile networks to be opened up to competition. 

They say that if they can compete fairly against MTN and Vodacom – on-selling capacity on the mobile giants’ networks – this will bring data prices down.

The proposal is again not dissimilar to the structural separation that happened to Telkom in 2013.

By all accounts the separation of Telkom has created a fiercely competitive ADSL broadband market.

So why not the same for the mobile data market? Why not the same for the television market?

As to whether an interoperable set-top box would have delivered a television sector that looks to serve consumers with myriad affordable quality content choices, we can only speculate.

What we know at this stage, is that consumers will get a voucher. 

With the voucher, they’ll be able to purchase a decoder of their choice, but it will be a set-top box that locks them in to one television service provider.

For now, it looks like we are going to be stuck with the same old choices. 

This article originally appeared in the 8 November edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

broadcasting  |  television  |  south africa