We may just be in for another set-top box delay as the ANC and Department of Communications Minister, Faith Muthambi, clash over the much delayed migration from analogue terrestrial television to digital television.
At the heart of the fracas is the claim from Muthambi that the ANC did not discuss issues of digital terrestrial television migration during the ANC National General Council (NGC) held in Midrand at the weekend. Various news reports had suggested that the party wasn’t sold on Muthambi’s policy announcement earlier in March that set-top boxes would not be required to include hardware capable of decrypting a coded signal. Muthambi explicitly denied this.
The ANC has now issued a statement saying this is not true and has officially stated the the issues of digital migration and the SABC, “were discussed extensively by the [Communications] Commission which resulted in the decisions that were taken” over the weekend.
This single issue has been at the heart of the project’s delay: on the one side are broadcasters like eTV, which hope to use the government-subsidised set-top boxes necessary for the migration to sell pay-TV services via digital terrestrial in the same manner they do via satellite television. On the other is DSTV, which doesn’t want competitors to its satellite services to get an easy route to market.
While some see the decision not to use an encrypted signal for digital TV as benefiting multichoice, it is also good news for owners of TV sets with digital decoders built in, who wouldn’t have to buy a separate set-top box to watch terrestrial broadcasts. The department’s decision doesn’t stop broadcasters from using an encrypted signal, it would simply mean that if one broadcaster wanted to offer pay TV it would need its customers to invest in a separate set-top box or convince manufacturers other than those with contracts to build the subsidised boxes to include decryption hardware – which is commonly the case overseas.
Until Muthambi’s announcement earlier in the year, it was expected her department would go with a decision was made by former ANC Communications Commission chairperson Lindiwe Zulu, who opted for an encrypted signal.
To say this is a slight disagreement would be a massive understatement. The ANC has come out and said that it is not happy about Muthambi making unmandated statements regarding decisions made at the NGC. It’s almost unheard of for the party to be so critical of a sitting minister.
In a statement issued last night, chairperson of the communications subcommittee, Jackson Mthembu, said that Muthambi had called him a liar saying he had, “opted again to speak on ANC decisions un-mandated and in the process she unfortunately accused the Chairperson of the Subcommittee of being a liar”.
All of this has the potential to set the migration to digital terrestrial television back even further than it has already been, something the ANC already acknowledges as an “unfortunate failure”.
In response to the week’s bizarre events between the ANC party and Muthambi, the DA has called for the minister to be sacked.