Digital TV showdown gets hearing date

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The Constitutional Court will ultimately make the decision on the type of set-top boxes to be used for SA''s digital migration.
The Constitutional Court will ultimately make the decision on the type of set-top boxes to be used for SA''s digital migration.

The legal matter over the technical specifications of government-subsidised set-top boxes (STBs) is due to be heard by the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) on 21 February, Aslam Moosajee, director at Norton Rose Fulbright, confirmed to ITWeb.

The matter was brought to the attention of the highest court in the land by communications minister Faith Muthambi, following the Supreme Court of Appeal's (SCA's) ruling in favour of encrypted decoders.

Last May, the SCA declared the Department of Communications' (DOC's) digital migration policy "unlawful and invalid" and it was accordingly set aside.

A ConCourt decision over the technical specifications for digital migration STBs will mark a decisive step in the legal showdown between Muthambi and free-to-air television broadcaster, Etv.

Legal showdown

Muthambi and Etv have been engaged in drawn-out litigation over the type of STBs to use when the country migrates from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

Etv approached the courts to challenge Muthambi's amendments to the country's Broadcasting Digital Migration policy. The amendments call for the use of unencrypted STBs, which the DOC says is in line with its mandate to unconditionally provide free access to content for citizens in all corners of SA.

The free-to-air broadcaster wants the digital migration decoders to be encrypted, a move that has been questioned and labelled as a future "business plan" for the broadcaster, which is speculated to want to move away from its free-to-air model.

Muthambi has also faced criticism from members of the African National Congress (ANC), who say she defied the party by amending its policy after it was declared encrypted STBs would be used for the country's migration to DTT.

The minister's department has rubbished claims she went against the ANC's policy on migration, saying the policy and amendments were approved by Cabinet.

In 2013, the ANC resolved to use encrypted STBs for the country's migration; however, Muthambi made amendments to the party's policy on technical specifications of STBs that would be used for the digital migration process.

The opposing views on STB specifications also resulted in a halt in manufacturing of digital migration decoders.

Last year, the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA, the agency charged with the responsibility of managing the production and installation of STBs, instructed manufacturers to suspend the production of DTT decoders.

Priority areas

Despite all the hurdles, the communications department has remained defiant and not deterred from its mandate to migrate South African households from analogue to digital TV.

The DOC began phase one of government's analogue switch-off project, with households in the Northern Cape switching to DTT in October last year. The department prioritised households in towns that sit in the core Square Kilometre Array area to migrate to digital TV.

The focus is now placed on the borderline areas, says Ayanda Hollow, director of provincial and local liaison for the Government Communication and Information System.

"These are towns in the Free State, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape."

According to Hollow, over 53 000 registrations have been recorded and over 27 000 devices have been issued to and installed in qualifying poor television-owning households.

The DOC began the registration process for households that qualify for free set-top boxes in October 2015.

"The focus is now placed on raising awareness and driving registration campaigns as well as distribution and installations in the borderline areas," he says.

Government plans to subsidise five million indigent TV-owning households across the country with free STBs.

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