State capture inquiry hears how digital migration of SABC stalled

12 September 2019 - 15:53
The SABC abruptly withdrew from the process, halting the digital migration process. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/marcociannarel The SABC abruptly withdrew from the process, halting the digital migration process. Stock photo.

A controversial 2013 deal struck between the SABC and pay-television operator MultiChoice may have brought the public broadcaster's digital migration strategy to a standstill. 

That's according to broadcasting digital migration expert Lawrence Kruger who told the state capture inquiry on Thursday that contracts for the SABC's digital migration were almost ready when the process stalled.

When former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng signed a deal with MultiChoice, the SABC withdrew from the digital migration plan and the process remained halted to this day. 

Kruger worked alongside the department of communications in 2012 to implement the strategy which would see a migration to Digital Terrestrial Television. 

"In 2012, the department had put out a policy document which required that SA should have a fully-encrypted digital TV network... A number of people took this encryption thing and started putting out stories that when you encrypt a system it becomes not free," Kruger said. 

"Free-to-air channels is television transmitted over the air un-encrypted or encrypted without charge for the delivery of the signal to the viewer. People within the SABC took this information and started telling even the community television guys, if the minister approves the encryption, your viewers will have to pay."   

He alleged that MultiChoice spread the same "disinformation". 

"They [MultiChoice] didn’t want the minister [Dina Pule] to implement any type of encryption or set-top box control [commonly called conditional access] because they don’t want competition in the broadcast sector...It’s false information," Kruger said.   

"In free-to-air channels, whether we encrypt or not, the end user gets the channel for free."  

In 2012, the SABC had put out a tender for the provision of a conditional access system, which signal distributor Sentech already had. Pule then instructed that the SABC use Sentech's conditional access system.

However, her decision was set aside after litigated against it - after the court's finding that Pule did not have the authority to make the decision for the SABC.

But, according to Kruger, eTV came around a year later and SABC was complying with the department view on using Sentech's systems.

But it was not to be. 

Kruger said all the contracts were set up when the SABC pulled out at the last minute. 

"SABC via Sipho Masinga [SABC head of technology] said we are no longer going to participate...He said the SABC has decided they don’t want any set top box control, any encryption or any conditional access systems from Sentech," Kruger said.  

"From talking to colleagues in the SABC, it turned out the SABC had signed a contract with MultiChoice... In the contract, clauses said we as MultiChoice will give you R500m a year for you to put your channels on our network but you are banned from using encryption or set top boxes on this network. 

"How can MultiChoice tell government you can’t use set-top box control?" 

Motsoeneng's deal with MultiChoice would see the pay-television broadcaster pay it more than R500m over five years. MultiChoice would pay the SABC this money to host the SABC's 24-hour news channel and the SABC's entertainment channel 'SABC Encore' on DStv.

But a clause in the contract also barred the SABC from launching its free-to-air channels on any encrypted platform. MultiChoice has repeatedly denied claims that the deal was about control of set-top boxes.

"That whole process is why SA is not finished with their digital roll-out because there were influences from other people, other companies that somehow stopped the whole thing," Kruger said.