Digital TV transmission offers a number of advantages over analogue. These include better reception quality, increased channel carrying capacity, new features such as programme guides, multi-view and interactive services as well as potential to provide triple-play; voice, video and data. Much of the television production and some distribution are already using digital technology. Other media such as DTH, broadband based IPTV, satellite TV channels are all using digital technology. Thus, digital technology in cable television is inevitable both from the view point of improvements offered by this technology as also to enable cable medium to compete with other TV distribution platforms. The immediate incentive for popularising digitalisation of cable TV is the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010 utilising it as a watershed on the same lines as Asiad was in 1982 for colour TV in India.
A consultation paper on Digitalisation Cable Television was issued on 3.1.2005. This was followed by the Authority making its recommendations on the issue on September 14, 2005, which are under consideration of the Government. The full text of the recommendations is available at www.trai.gov.in. The Authority had primarily been guided by the need to keep the process completely voluntary. Thus it was recommended that the cable operators, MSOs, broadcasters and above all consumers should adopt the new technology only when they see the merits of such a shift. The main recommendations made by the Authority are:-
Time frame for digitalisation
There should be a national plan for digitalisation from 1st April, 2006 till 31st March, 2010. This plan would be indicative and voluntary, and would not be mandatory in any form. The essential components of this plan would be:
i) Introduction of digital cable service in all cities/ urban agglomerations with a population of one million plus by 2010.
ii) Licensing for new entrants and automatic licensing for existing operators.
iii) Rationalisation of import and domestic duties by April 1, 2006.
iv) Use of Entertainment tax for a consumer education programme during these four years (2006-2010)
Licensing and Carriage Issues
It was recommended that no person would be allowed to offer a digital service after 1.4.2006 without a licence for digital services. Such a license would be required for putting up a headend and providing signals to cable operators and the licensee will also be allowed to provide services directly to consumers.
All operators who had an analogue headend on the date of notification of the policy would be allowed a digital licence on an automatic basis but they would have to apply separately for this.
Licenses would be given on a non-exclusive basis just as registration is done today. The licensing authority for digital services should be the Central Government. The license period should be 15 years which may be extended for a period of 5 years.
It was also proposed to provide for Right of Way on the lines of provisions contained in The Communication Convergence Bill 2001 through appropriate amendments in the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995.
The licences for digital service would have a provision for non -discriminatory carriage of channels on the lines of the existing DTH licence conditions which require that the licensee shall provide access to various content providers/ channels on a non discriminatory basis.
Upgradation of Network and Technical Choices
While digitalization of cable TV should be promoted, the choice of analogue CAS or Digital CAS should be left to the Cable operators as per their business plans.
The development of digital decoders, which are considered essential for viewing digital channels on analogue TV should be promoted with a view to promoting digitalization of Cable TV in the country.
There is need for a clear policy framework for HITS which could be on the lines of the permission already given by the Government for one operator.
After the Authority gave its recommendations to the Government, there have been certain important developments having major implications on digitalization of cable TV industry in India.
The Hon'ble Delhi High Court had directed implementation of Conditional Access System (CAS) in the three metros of Delhi, Mumbai & Kolkata with effect from 31.12.2006. This is likely to give an impetus to digitalization as CAS is being implemented by all the service providers in Digital mode only, even though it is not mandatory.
Moreover, DTH has also become an important player in the pay TV market as most of the popular content is now available on the DTH platform. Thus, DTH is offering a viable alternative to the cable TV services in most parts of the country. There are about 2 million pay DTH viewers apart from about 3 million viewers of Doordarshan's Free To Air DTH service "DD Direct Plus". The cable TV industry will have to move towards digitalization so as to be able to compete with DTH in terms of quality, channel carrying capacity and value added services such as pay per view movies/ active news/ different camera angles for sports events/ commentary in different languages etc. In several cities digital services are being offered by the cable industry, independently of CAS.
Outcome of the project of Voluntary CAS being introduced by M/s. Ortel Communications Ltd. is also likely to be an important factor in the move towards digitalization. M/s. Ortel Communications Ltd. is signing up with the broadcasters for its voluntary CAS service independently. The basic package in this service includes some popular pay channels, while other pay channels are encrypted and are available to subscribers a-la-carte as well as in the form of bouquets. This system is therefore different from the officially induced CAS, wherein all the pay channels are encrypted.