Faith Muthambi. Picture: GCIS
Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. Picture: GCIS

THE African National Congress (ANC) has broken the deadlock over set-top boxes for television, confirming at its lekgotla last week that a Cabinet decision in favour of encryption taken a year ago must be implemented.

Set-top boxes will be required for all analogue TV sets once SA’s transmission signal switches to digital. Set-top boxes for poor households will be subsidised by the government.

The deadline for this "digital migration" has been set by the International Telecommunication Union as June 15 this year. However, a protracted battle over the set-top boxes — in particular, whether or not they will provide "conditional access", in other words be encrypted — between powerful stakeholders has delayed SA’s changeover.

Among the players are MultiChoice, which has lobbied fiercely for nonencryption, and e.tv and an array of civil society organisations, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which want encryption.

An encrypted set-top box can be switched off by the signal provider or broadcaster.

While this provides security if the unit is stolen, it also creates an opportunity for new players to enter the pay-TV market, over which MultiChoice has until now had a monopoly.

An encrypted box would also protect free-to-air broadcasters from having their content pirated and broadcast, the basis on which e.tv supports encryption.

The lekgotla decision, which Communications Minister Faith Muthambi has been instructed by the ANC to take to the Cabinet lekgotla now under way, will clear the way for the manufacture of the boxes to begin and the migration to digital terrestrial television to take place.

The state’s Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (Usaasa) closed a R4.3bn tender for set-top boxes last month.

In its official statement after the lekgotla, the ANC said: "Lekgotla has directed the finalisation of the digital migration process to support broadband roll-out. Government must move with the necessary speed to meet the deadline of 15 June 2015."

In an interview on Friday, ANC economic transformation committee head Enoch Godongwana said what this implied was that the lekgotla had decided that the Cabinet decision taken in December 2013 must be implemented.

"Cabinet already has a decision on this, and that decision in 2013 was for encryption. That decision must be implemented, so as far as the ANC is concerned, the matter is resolved," he said.

Two other ANC leaders who attended the lekgotla confirmed this, saying that Ms Muthambi had been instructed to take this decision to the Cabinet lekgotla.

However, the December 2013 decision was put to the Cabinet by former communications minister Yunus Carrim, not Ms Muthambi. Mr Carrim’s support for encryption is widely believed among political and industry insiders to be a key reason for President Jacob Zuma’s failure to reappoint him after the election.

Ms Muthambi has not acted on the decision since her appointment. She had not commented by the time of going to press.

The Cabinet statement of December 4 2013 set out the criteria for the decision on set-top box control as including to ensure that the government subsidy for set-top boxes is used productively; to stimulate the local electronics industry; and to reduce monopolisation and create competition in the pay-TV market.

Encryption would enable the government to protect its subsidy by preventing boxes from being bought and sold. It would also enable it to reserve set-top box manufacturing for the local industry, as without encryption it is anticipated that the market would be flooded with cheap imports.

Responding to the ANC decision, an e.tv spokesman said the broadcaster would "welcome the implementation of such a decision so as to see the speedy implementation of the commercial roll-out" of digital broadcasting.

MultiChoice corporate affairs GM Jackie Rakitla said the company was "not aware of any further official pronouncements on the matter from either the ANC or government" other than the brief mention in the press statement.