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Cape Town – Changes to the government’s digital migration policy gazetted by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi this week will spawn a market for stolen set-top boxes and cost local industry millions in lost investment, manufacturers and experts warn.
Shaun Hendricks, managing executive of electronics manufacturer Tellumat, said it was a "really dark day" for the industry.
Manufacturers had invested "tens of millions" in preparing to pitch for contracts for government-sponsored set-top boxes (STBs), which will be required by existing TV owners to receive the new digital signal, but this work would now have to be binned and started from scratch.
The government plans to buy about 5 million STBs for qualifying poor households, while roughly 4 million households who don’t have satellite decoders will have to buy their own in order to receive free television offerings from the SABC, e-tv and community stations.
"This is the third iteration that has been put on the table and all that investment gets scrapped every time the goalposts get moved," Hendricks said, referring to the government’s digital migration policy, which has seen three sets of changes to the specifications for the design of the boxes.
The changes gazetted by Muthambi this week have drastically weakened the security features of the set-top boxes, making them vulnerable to hacking and theft, according to experts. "Security is basically like an onion, you peel off one layer at a time, and basically you are now left with just one ring of security for your investment after this," Hendricks said.
While there was no value in stealing Dstv decoders, because they would be disabled, the government STBs would be "of value to everybody".
"You will most probably have theft syndicates set up to make sure large volumes of these boxes disappear, and you’ve got no way of switching them off."
The market would also be flooded with cheap knock-off versions of the locally made STBs once hackers had cracked the unique code used by the system stipulated by Muthambi, known as multiplexer validation.
Roy Kruger, a former technical adviser to two previous communications ministers who assisted with digital migration in Nigeria and Kenya, explained that this code allowed the system to check whether a box was authorised to receive the broadcast signal.
It would be a relatively simple matter to hack this code so foreign manufacturers could trick the system into accepting their STBs.
Hendricks said this meant local manufacturers would lose out in the resultant "free-for-all" as people could buy the grey-import versions for as little as R350, about half the cost of a local version.
Boosting the local electronics manufacturing industry was supposed to be a key objective of the policy.
Loren Braithwaite Kabosha, chief executive of industry representative body the SA Communications Forum, said the changes to the policy left free-to-air broadcasters with very little scope in their choice of a control system for the new STBs and it remained to be seen how robust this would be.
But ICT expert William Stucke said if Muthambi’s amendments made it possible for cheap imported STBs to flood the market, "so what?"
Local manufacturers would in any case assemble the boxes using a high percentage of imported components – the same ones that would be present in the cheap imports – and, secondly, as long as the imported boxes conformed to the standard set by the authorities they would perform as well as local versions.