FOR the longest time, little has happened in South Africa's
broadcasting sector. But big changes are now looming. Barely a week
seems to go by without significant new developments.

In recent weeks there has been news of plans to launch South
Africa's first comprehensive trial of digital radio; e.tv's sister
company, Platco Digital, has revealed plans to launch a free-to-air
satellite service called OpenView HD; and Kagiso Media and others
have revealed their desire to launch pay-TV services to challenge
MultiChoice. And the latter is not standing still, taking a big bet
that consumers want video-on-demand services and launching a new
personal video recorder (PVR) decoder this week.

Let us take these developments in turn. Digital radio, as I
wrote in this column two weeks ago, looks set to foster a more
robust and competitive industry as new radio licences are issued in
the next few years to challenge those already on the FM dial. The
only thing holding it up is that the government is taking
agonisingly long to migrate analogue television broadcasters out of
the spectrum that will be used for digital radio.

Then there was the news that Platco Digital, owned ultimately by
listed Hosken Consolidated Investments, plans to launch a
free-to-air satellite service in October. OpenView HD will offer
about 15 channels in a mix of standard- and high-definition
formats. The details are sketchy, but it appears that all consumers
will need to do is purchase and install a satellite dish and
set-top box, which will set them back about R2,000.

It is not only in free-to-air TV that competition is growing. In
pay-TV, which MultiChoice dominates with DStv, prospective rivals
are lining up. This is in spite of the financial troubles faced by
On Digital Media's TopTV. The problems at TopTV, which was placed
into "business rescue" in 2012 and bailed out in April this year by
Chinese company StarTimes, were probably in large part owing to
poor execution, rather than a lack of market opportunity.

Unlike TopTV, some of the prospective bidders - the biggest of
which is Kagiso Media, which owns East Coast Radio and Jacaranda FM
- are keen for access to spectrum that will allow them to offer
digital terrestrial services. There islittle activity in
terrestrial pay-TV - the only player in that space is M-Net, whose
terrestrial subscribers have dwindled - so opening the market could
create interesting new competitive dynamics.

Other than Kagiso Media, the Independent Communications
Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has received a range of bids from
prospective broadcasters. There is Siyaya, backed by the Bakgatla
Ba Kgafela tribe in North West, which wants to offer a
football-focused service. Talkshow host Dali Tambo is a
shareholder. Then there is CloseTV, which is promising content
tailored for the gay community. And Mindset Media Enterprises, the
commercial arm of the not-for-profit Mindset Network, wants to
provide low-cost education channels for use in schools and
elsewhere. Mindset is the organisation behind the excellent Mindset
Learn satellite channel aimed at supplementing teaching in
schools.

MultiChoice is not standing still either. The Naspers-owned
broadcaster has unveiled a new PVR decoder aimed at the top end of
the market. Taking its cue from internet-based on-demand services
fast gaining traction in developed markets, its new DStv Explora
decoder offers a huge amount of storage space (two terabytes), a
big chunk of which is used to mimic services such as Netflix in the
US. MultiChoice did not have the luxury of using the internet,
given the poor state of South Africa's fixed-line infrastructure,
so Explora PVR decoders receive and store vast quantities of
content through satellite instead.

Increasingly, MultiChoice is also turning its attention to the
lower end of the market in which, historically, it has not
competed. New, cheaper bouquets, coupled with a focus on tying up
sports rights - local football has been pivotal to its focus on the
emerging black middle class - have helped it to lift subscriber
growth. But it will have to be careful that it does not invite the
attention of competition regulators, especially if some of the new
entrants begin failing commercially.

The Competition Commission's screening unit is already
deliberating whether to recommend an investigation into MultiChoice
based on a complaint by On Digital Media, in which the TopTV owner
accuses its rival of anti-competitive behaviour. MultiChoice must
be careful that it does not abuse its dominant market position to
thwart competition. If it does, it will invite trouble for itself
down the line. It just needs to look at Telkom.