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HomeArticlesCol KK SharmaLCO torn between Government & Consumers
Saturday, 18 May 2013 10:06

LCO torn between Government & Consumers

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Col. KK Sharma

According to a report presented to parliament by information & broadcasting minister Manish Tewari on 26 April, the level of cable television digitisation in 38 cities in 14 states and one union territory of Phase II has touched 89.8 per cent, including 28.33 per cent DTH homes as on 21 April, three weeks after analogue switch-off.

Thus, a total of 14,379,454 digital set top boxes have been seeded out of a total demand of 16,013,059 total TV households. The houses where STBs have been installed include 4,536,676 DTH subscribers.

The total number of TV households has been computed by making provision of twenty per cent for multiple TVs in offices/shops or homes. Although many experts and cable operators associations refute these figures and consider the numbers are much higher. Ministry reports 14 cities have already crossed the 100 per cent with Hyderabad at the top with 191.07 per cent followed by Ludhiana (175.91 per cent), Allahabad (160.46 per cent), Faridabad (142.69 per cent), Chandigarh (119.23 per cent), Meerut (112.24 per cent), Jaipur (111.84 per cent), Varanasi (111.78 per cent), Amritsar (111.03 per cent), Thane (109.33 per cent), Jodhpur (107.94 per cent), Aurangabad (103.37 per cent), Indore (102.29 per cent), and Nasik (101.75 per cent).

Ghaziabad, Pune and Kanpur have crossed the 90 per cent mark.

Srinagar stands at the bottom with 22.28 per cent seeding of STBs, with Visakhapatnam at 29.61 per cent, Coimbatore at 29.74 per cent, and Jabalpur with a DAS reach of only 45.32 per cent. All the other 17 cities have crossed the 57 per cent mark.

There are many variable factors involved like different economic status, different educational levels, different service quality perceptions and different types and age of TV sets in the households. We cannot measure them with the same scale and give them all a common solution.

The ministry had announced earlier this month that analogue signals has been completely switched-off in the five states of Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Haryana, and the Union Territory of Chandigarh. DAS continues to be stayed in the cities of Bhopal, Indore, Jabalpur, Hyderabad, and Visakhapatnam. The Karnataka and Gujarat High Courts had earlier last month quashed petitions seeking extension of DAS thereby paving way for the analogue signals to be switched-off. In addition, stay continues in Chennai which was part of Phase I because of court case. 

This report from the Ministry is just about seeding of STBs. It does not say what is being done after this. Neither will any parliamentarian ask them about how the consumers are taking this change because they are not interested. Lack of knowledge of the digital systems and their functioning makes them totally unaware of what the public is facing. Moreover they are all very busy in various scams and forthcoming elections that they have no time for the masses. So Ministry and TRAI can do anything they want.

The reality is that 6 months after the closure of 1st Phase and one month after the deadline of 2nd Phase our digitalization process is still at point zero in spite of Government announcement of more than 100% seeding of STBs in many cities. It’s a common fact that apart from forcing consumers to buy STBs Government has achieved nothing in terms of transparency, increase in government revenues, decrease in carriage fee and providing consumers their a-la-carte choice enabling them to control their billing.

I had predicted all this long ago because I knew that Ministry’s way of forcing this technology will never be successful where already 100 million households are used to a particular system. It’s a not a question of analog or digital, bad quality or good quality; it is a question of changing the mindsets of millions of people to shift from a free for all packaged service to a-la-carte based ‘Pay’ channel service delivered through a totally new technology they had never known before. There are many variable factors involved like different economic status, different educational levels, different service quality perceptions and different types and age of TV sets in the households. We cannot measure them with the same scale and give them all a common solution. Another important issue is of making each STB in the household an individual subscriber, made to pay its own subscription and entertainment tax. People who are used to watching 80 odd channels including all popular channels at a fixed fee ranging from Rs 100-200 for 20 years and are satisfied with the personalized service of their neighborhood cable operator, find it hard to understand why they be made to invest more in an STB that would not deliver their choice unless they pay through their nose. They are more agitated to know that it is the government in power that wants them to do so.  Unfortunately the government equates all these people of different demographics with the same scale and expects each and every existing cable TV household to afford an STB and pay for the ‘Pay’ channels whatever the broadcasters demand. It is these assumptions on which the present process is based. These assumptions are also the brainchild of I&B Ministry to help some stake holders. This is why I feel things will always go wrong, no one solution fits all. It would have been fine if it was a fresh start like Mobile service started  years ago with very high rates and as the consumer numbers grew, rates kept coming down. It cannot happen in cable TV where already 100 million households (500 million people) are connected. Getting all of them on a new technology platform with increased payments is almost impossible which the Ministry is trying to make it possible. On papers they have already shifted 25 million households on digital networks. Recently TRAI had sent threatening notices to all MSOs and LCOs to comply by its impossible directions or face action, again doing something that should not have happened. These notices have been sent mostly to independent MSOs. The compliance includes ensuring that each and every subscriber fills up the PAF form giving his choice of package and a-la-carte channels, MSO to give report that all details are entered into the SMS system and also provide details of subscribers to TRAI.

Now since consumers are being made to pay bills as per the new MSO packages, reactions are pouring in. To their utter surprise consumers are finding that packages offered to them do not have most of their choice channels and they have to pay exorbitant amount for each additional channel as a-la-carte price. Also when consumers find that each STB will be billed separately with entertainment tax and service tax, they are refusing to sign the PAF forms. Many are deciding to return the additional STBs and get the refund. LCOs are tormented with this government behavior because sitting in their air-conditioned offices these bureaucrats don’t even wink passing such orders and other stake holders like broadcasters and DTH operators who make maximum noise, have nothing to do with this. Large MSOs who are associated with pay broadcasters are not bothered because they are in the favourable zone of the Ministry. This leaves the LCOs torn between the Government and the Public. The same people whom LCOs served for last 20 years are blaming them for every ill including bad quality of STBs, poor service, increased bills etc.

LCOs have shown their inability to get the PAF forms filled from the consumers for the following reasons:-

1.MSOs have formed the packages as per their own choice and convenience and ignored the demands of subscribers and LCOs. The ethnicity of people living in a certain area has not been ascertained as South Indian language channels have been added in the area where most of the population is of North Indians. 

2.The a-la-carte pricing of channels is also beyond the reach of an average subscribers. One MSO is offering a package of Rs.225 (excluding Taxes). But if a subscriber goes for al-la-carte for even half the number of the channels offered in this package he will pay more than Rs.600.00 (Excluding Taxes). 

3.Different MSOs are charging different price for same number of channels and of same genre, this is making hard for the LCO to answer consumer queries.

4.Unholy nexus between the Broadcasters and some MSOs is the main reason behind the differential pricing. 

5.There is no transparency on the retails pricing of channels by the broadcasters, channel aggregators have made deals with  MSOs, and LCOs have been kept out of the loop. Therefore MSOs are pricing the channels at their own will. There is no mechanism to check this arbitrary pricing of channels by aggregators and MSOs.

6.Subscribers are refusing to fill the PAF as they don’t want to pay for the unwanted channels in a Bouquet (Package) and are also refusing to pay the monthly subscription until they get the channels of their choice in the Package.

7.Many RWAs have warned us not to enforce the PAF on its members otherwise they will drag us to consumer court and will also raise this issue with Delhi Govt.  

8.PAF (Package Acceptance Forms) are very confusing and terms and conditions have been printed so minutely that one needs a magnifying glass to read it,

In many states LCOs and consumers are going to courts to resolve their issues because TRAI and Ministry are not listening to them. PILs are being filed in various High Courts. Industry is suffering a lot because of these litigations  as litigations never prove beneficial and no investments are coming up in such a chaotic situation. Not only this litigations involve lot of money, particularly if one has to file a writ in the High Court or Supreme Court. Broadcasters and the Government have already managed to get some cases dismissed with the verbal jugglery of their senior advocates and solicitor generals respectively. With these kinds of happenings, I feel digitization will be halted for Phase 3 & 4 and things will go on like before. In any case government has already helped broadcasters to capture the TRP town market through their MSO partners. 

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