Sth Africa to issue new pay-TV licences

Chris Forrester

South African pay-TV is in a mess. Even ICASA, the telecom and media authority, seemingly admits it has got things wrong, especially given that it is to re-advertise the planned pay-TV licence opportunities for the country.

Local reports state that, besides Multichoice, the other licences awarded by ICASA back in 2007 have gone badly wrong. None of the proposed – and newly licensed - services (to the ‘Walking on Water’ religious channel: On Digital Media, which has SES Astra as a junior partner; and Telkom Media) have yet to start transmissions.

Icasa chairman Paris Mashile said yesterday that the regulator would hold a second round of licensing to increase competition in the pay TV market. His announcement, at a breakfast briefing hosted by Neotel and the Mail & Guardian, came despite Icasa's recent statement that it would look at issuing satellite free-to-air licences as an alternative to pay TV, reported IOL Business Report.

David Moore, a media analyst at Africa Analysis, said: "I think Icasa is in a state of turmoil, and needs to pause and re-examine where its focus should be and how best to fulfill its mandate. "It needs to determine a single path to follow, and stick to it," he said. Its handling of Vodacom's listing was "a clear indicator that Icasa staff are not all reading from the same page. This situation just adds to that."

"It is not up to the regulator to decide competition issues. It is up to the market and the proper competition authorities… Icasa should award licenses to as many companies that want one and can reasonably prove that they can survive the market, and then let the market itself decide who sinks or swims. That is how it is done in the free market system."

IOL Business added that the industry has cautioned that the South African market would not accommodate more than two players, given that MultiChoice has already sewn up all content available and is targeting all segments of the market through its different bouquets. Media commentator Sei Mukoma said that if Icasa planned to issue new pay-TV licenses, it should do an intensive market study to ensure that the market could accommodate more operators. "The first round of licenses has not produced anything so far, as none of those licensed operators has launched services."

Mashile said that the new licensees, such as Walking on Water, had been given six months to commercially launch operations. If they failed to do so, the regulator would revoke their licenses. Telkom Media was recently sold to Shenzhen Media and there is still a veil of secrecy on its operational plans.