Faith Muthambi. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

COMMUNICATIONS Minister Faith Muthambi has defied her African National Congress (ANC) colleagues and recommended that the Cabinet opt for set-top boxes without conditional access when SA migrates from analogue to digital television later this year.

At an ANC lekgotla and again at a Cabinet lekgotla last month, Ms Muthambi was told by her colleagues to implement the standing decision of the Cabinet from December 2013 that set-top boxes be manufactured with conditional access.

However, last week her department prepared a memorandum for the Cabinet recommending the opposite, arguing set-top boxes should not have an access control mechanism.

A conditional access mechanism would allow broadcasters to encrypt signals.

The Cabinet is due to deliberate on the issue over the next two weeks.

Though it appears a technical matter, there are powerful commercial interests at play in the set-top box control battle. MultiChoice, for instance, opposes control as it would lower barriers for entry into the pay-TV industry by new competitors.

On the other hand and community broadcasters favour control as it would enable them to protect content from piracy.

Cosatu and the Department of Trade and Industry support control as they believe it would protect local manufacturing.

The issue has also in the past month become a proxy for the ANC’s ability to bind President Jacob Zuma and members of his executive to ANC decisions, and prevent them from bypassing political processes.

As information emerged last week that Ms Muthambi planned to defy the ANC, the tripartite alliance of the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu also weighed in, announcing in a joint statement on Sunday that there was a need to "implement the December 2013 Cabinet decision in regard to digital migration".

They urged the government "to move swiftly to effect these decisions that will ensure the production of set-top boxes".

SACP spokesman Alex Mashilo said the statement had been made to make the point that "when we say implement, we mean move forward. We don’t mean bypass processes."

The debate among industry stakeholders over set-top box control goes back several years. The Cabinet decision a year ago was a result of policy proposals made by previous communications minister Yunus Carrim.

Though the Cabinet as a whole endorsed his plan, Mr Carrim was not reappointed to the Cabinet after May last year.

A spokesman for Ms Muthambi, Ayanda Hollow, said the minister had no comment to make on the matter.

Set-top boxes will be required by all households when SA switches its broadcast transmission signal from analogue to digital, with the exception of DStv subscribers.

Even if the set-top box has a control mechanism, it is not compulsory for broadcasters to encrypt their content.

The worldwide deadline for "digital migration" has been set by the International Telecommunication Union as June 17 this year. The delays — primarily the issue of encryption — mean that SA now has no hope of meeting the deadline.

The main consequence will be the effect on the roll-out of broadband. The analogue television signal uses the 800 megahertz band, which must be freed up for expansion.