Communications Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA
Communications Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA

The strongest indication yet that state-sponsored television set-top boxes will not be encrypted has been given by Minister of Communications Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.

Set-top boxes are needed to decode the digital signal for television sets without digital capabilities. Conditional access and encryption is crucial for pay television broadcasters, as it allows them to control who has access to their broadcasts.

Briefing members of Parliament’s communication portfolio committee on the much-delayed digital-migration process, Kubayi-Ngubane said the current policy position "speaks to nonencryption".

Her pronouncements are likely to put her on a collision course with some of her ANC colleagues who have backed encryption. Kubayi-Ngubane’s position also effectively reverses previous communications minister Ayanda Dlodlo’s policy position, which sought to ensure that set-top boxes are encrypted as per ANC resolutions.

Kubayi-Ngubane said the department was confident it would meet the June 2019 deadline to complete the migration process, should all required resources be provided. The department needs about R6.6bn to conclude the project.

SA lags most of the continent on digital migration and missed the 2015 International Telecommunications Union deadline to switch its signal to digital. Digital migration is crucial for freeing up broadband spectrum, which will boost connectivity.

Dlodlo had dumped the policy position of her predecessor, Faith Muthambi, who backed nonencryption of set-top boxes, in defiance of the governing party’s policies.

In 2013, the ANC adopted a policy that supported the use of encrypted set-top boxes for digital migration.

Bickering over the issue delayed SA’s plans to migrate from analogue to digital. The position that Muthambi took on nonecryption was supported by pay-television company MultiChoice and later by the SABC.

Allegations, including a copy of minutes of a meeting held between MultiChoice and SABC executives in 2013, emerged in 2017, suggesting the pay television operator would proceed with its multimillion-rand deal with the public broadcaster to include the SABC News Channel on the MultiChoice bouquet only if the government supported nonencryption.

"A policy position can’t be based on an individual. The current policy position speaks to nonencryption," Kubayi-Ngubane said on Tuesday in response to a question from DA MP Phumzile Van Damme.