The High Court of South Gauteng has ruled in favour of e.tv in finding that Communications Minister Dina Pule overreached her powers in awarding set-top-box controls to Sentech.
Acting judge CG Pretorius ruled that the decision by Pule to grant responsibility for the control of set-top-boxes to the state-owned company was unlawful, with Pule acting outside her remit.
The judge clarified that Pule had “no legal power to prescribe or make binding decisions relating to set-top box control“.
The court also ruled that SABC, e.tv and free-to-air broadcasters are responsible for the control of set-top-boxes, while the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is the only entity with the power to regulate this control.
“Subject to the regulatory powers of [ICASA], it is declared that e.tv, the SABC and other free-to-air broadcasters are responsible for the set-top box control system for free-to-air digital terrestrial television,” the court said.
In addition to the findings, acting judge Pretorius granted costs to e.tv.
E.tv launched a legal claim against Pule and Sentech in September, following the unilateral decision by Pule in May to give Sentech responsibility for the control of decoders as the country migrates to digital television signal, despite an earlier agreement which stipulated that e.tv and SABC would be responsible for decoder control.
E.tv argued that not only did the minister not have the power to make such a decision, but that by doing so the broadcasting industry would be disrupted as Sentech would be free to set fees for access to the decoder network.
What remains to be seen is whether this development will impact on the time-frame for South Africa’s migration from analogue to digital television signal – which has already been widely criticised due to extensive delays.
South Africa originally set itself the target of switching on digital signal in November 2008, with analogue signal to be switched off in November 2011. However, steps towards the digital migration only began in October of this year, when the government launched phase one proof-of-concept trials in an area of the Northern Cape – while promising that digital signal would be switched on in the country in December of this year.
This date has since been postponed, with the government finally conceding that the deadline set by the International Telecommunications Union – for mid-2015 – may be the most realistic target deadline.
With such confusion including legal action surrounding the control system for set-top-boxes, it remains to be seen whether the digital roll-out will suffer even further delays.