WHEN it comes to access to television channels, Free To Air (FTA) in Europe means the same thing in Africa. It means consumers of TV information do so at no cost to them.
In Ghana, it remained same until a new policy by the National Communications Authority (NCA) is now threatening to redefine FTA and cost viewers.
In a bizarre move that seems to have broken the hearts of private broadcasters in the country, the NCA has altered the gazetted standard document (GS1099: 2019) which was adopted on December 30 last year to regulate access to Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) in the country.
The revision to the document, which was produced by the Ghana Standard Authority (GSA), has made Conditional Access System (CAS) mandatory for Free to Air (FTA) television receivers against consensus reached over a long period to exclude a mandatory CAS from the regulations on DDT.
This means FTA television receivers in the country will have to pay a fee to receive FTA channels such as TV3, GHOne, TV Africa, Adom TV, UTV, Joy Prime, Crystal TV, DGN and the many others who play the vital role of informing and educating the masses.
This is because, to access any of these TV channels under the new regulation, one will have to acquire a special decoder with proprietary software.
The decoder would be controlled by Conditional Access Software and Middleware applications to be provided by a company called Verimatrix.
Already, Startimes and Go TV have adopted the system to transmit FTA channels to their subscribers at a fee via the special decoder.
Dimming our lights
Private broadcasters are pained by this development because they are of the conviction that the contract given to Verimatrix will bring unfair competition into the television broadcast space and also make access to FTA channels expensive for the public.
It is estimated that more than 95 per cent of Ghanaians rely on such FTA channels for their broadcasting services and information.
Slapping them with fees would mean that a significant number of the population would be cut off from viewing television programmes even through FTA channels.
The Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA) says it has made well-researched proposals on alternatives to raise revenue to fund public broadcasting and the DTT platform that eliminates the need to encrypt FTA television.
The proposed alternative does not have any administrative costs for the collection of TV licence fees, in sharp contrast to the proposed use of a Conditional Access model for the collection of TV licence fees.
Although the NCA has the legal mandate to set regulations in the communications sector, it is also legally bound to do so in accordance with due process.
The NCA is also ethically bound to do so in consultation with the relevant state institutions and stakeholders who will be directly affected by the regulation to ensure fairness.
And in all fairness, common sense must always prevail in making such elusive decisions to prevent the uneasiness that has characterised its reception.
Today, we don’t have a standard on DTT due to the revision that has been made to the ‘GS1099: 2019’ standard document which took years to put together.
According to the Director General of the GSA, Professor Alex Dodoo, any changes made to an accepted standard or technical regulation without the input of the GSA was unacceptable.
Such revised documents, could neither be called a national standard or technical regulation.
So if there have been any changes made to the standard document, even one letter changed, it can’t be known anymore as technical standard or technical regulation.
This is an accepted rule to ensure that regulations do not contradict the national standard in any sector off the economy.
As a result, the revised document that the NCA had adopted now could not be referred to as a national standard document.
This renders the work done over the years through consensus building and stakeholder engagements useless and the money spent in putting the document together, wasted.
Consensus building is very important in adopting any technical regulation across the world because it helps in capturing the input of all interested parties to help foster understanding and compliance.
In Ghana, for instance, when the GSA is setting standards that will be adopted by regulators as a technical regulation, it engages players in the industry, including the regulators to build consensus.
In doing so, the GSA brings together all players in a particular industry to the table to discuss what needs to be adopted.
After that, it is sent for review by every interested party so that when it is endorsed, it becomes a final document.
It is for these reasons that when there are supposed to be changes made to such documents, the same procedure must be followed. Although the changes made to the document might not be illegal, it wouldn’t be ‘in good spirit.’
It is, therefore, important for the NCA to reconsider its decision and revert to the original standard that was accepted by all stakeholders for peace and fairness to prevail.