Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) is pushing ahead with its plans to facilitate the entry of new players into the pay-television market, which is currently dominated by MultiChoice.

This week the regulator invited applications for radio frequency spectrum aimed at promoting diversity and competition on the digital terrestrial television platform. Icasa says once finalised, it will boost competition in the commercial subscription broadcasting space.

MultiChoice, which owns DStv, dominates the market because it has exclusive contracts for premium and international content. The company has the exclusive rights to broadcast football, particularly the popular English Premier League.

In a bid to break the stranglehold on the pay-TV market, Icasa is, among other measures, considering introducing shared sports rights and shortening contract periods.

However, MultiChoice has said this inquiry is misplaced and has called on Icasa to focus on regulating online streaming services such as Netflix.

Icasa said the current process to invite applications for radio frequency spectrum was not related to Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele’s successful court interdict that set aside a planned spectrum auction for high-speed broadband.

In 2016, Icasa invited applications for 700MHz, 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum licences to boost the roll-out of faster broadband. However, Cwele challenged the auction, arguing that the government’s policy on spectrum was yet to be finalised and that such an auction would only benefit the big operators.

Icasa spokesman Paseka Maleka said the invitation for radio frequency spectrum applications would encourage diversity and promote competition in the subscription broadcasting sector on the digital terrestrial television platform.

"It is important to note that this process is only open to holders of a commercial subscription television broadcasting service licence. Therefore, the licensee that is assigned capacity on Multiplex 3 may use its capacity for the digital broadcasting of any digital channels which the television broadcasting service licensee is authorised to provide, radio channels, as well as data services."

Icasa intends to complete the process by the end of the current financial year. The regulator said the impact of the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting was that more television content could be accommodated into the same spectrum.

"For instance, where a single analogue channel requires a whole frequency, digitalised signal can allow for up to 10 television channels to use the same frequency, thereby providing choice for consumers as well as promoting competition in the sector brought about by relevant and appealing programming content to audiences," said Icasa councillor Paris Mashile.

SA already lags much of Africa on digital migration and missed the 2015 International Telecommunications Union deadline to switch its signal to digital. This means people living in border areas could experience signal interruptions.

The government now hopes to finalise the migration process by the 2019-20 financial year.