The Ministry on 23 December issued a press release extending the cut-off date for Phase III of Cable TV Digitisation to 31 January 2017, cut-off date for Phase IV covering rest of India has been shifted to 31 March 2017. Although, Ministry blames the court proceedings initiated by the small MSOs and Cable Operators for causing the delay, it refuses to accept that there is neither adequate preparation nor enough resources to complete the process even by March 2017.
In Phase III areas, digitisation in remaining urban areas in the country was to be completed by 31 December, 2015. However, someMSO associations/individuals had moved various High Courts and obtained either extension of cut-off date / stay on the operationalisation of the notifications of the ministry dated 11 November 2011 and 11 September 2014.
The matter was raised before the Supreme Court by the ministry, which transferred all the cases to the Delhi High Court for hearing in an order on 1 April 2016. The Delhi High Court disposed of most of the cases, and the ministry said, “It is very likely that the remaining cases would also be finally disposed of in very near future.”
The ministry will be issuing instructions to all the broadcasters, multi-system operators (MSOs), local cable operators (LCOs) and the authorised officers to ensure that no analog signals would be transmitted over the cable networks in Phase III areas after 31 January 2017.
The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act, 2011, made it mandatory for switch-over of the existing analogue Cable TV networks to Digital Addressable System (DAS) in four phases.
According to the Ministry, Digital switch-over has already taken place in Phase-I and II areas, but in reality much more is needed to be done. If the basic objective of Digitisation to provide choice of content at reasonable price to consumers and total transparency of distribution and billing is not achieved, it cannot be called completed. So far only digital STBs have been forced on consumers. No MSO is generating itemised billing for consumers, providing them content of their choice as stipulated in the TRAI regulations.
Ministry has also said that 75% of Phase III has already been seeded by the Task Force constituted by the MIB on January 1, 2016 to monitor the progress in Phase-III. According to this committee, around 400 areas out of the 6000 plus existing in Phase-III having population less than 1000 have been left.
A Tough Task for the MSOs
Out of about 6000 MSOs existing in analogue era prior to 2011, only 1300 MSOs are registered for digital services till date. Regulations created for digitisation deter the small MSOs and independent Cable Operators to register particularly in the areas where population density is low. These far off places are not economically viable for connecting by large MSOs who do not have funds to extend their infrastructure.
In many areas MSOs have extended the fiber optic cables but LCOs are taking time in buying STBs as they do not have funds. Demonetisation has also made LCOs and subscribers cashless, with the result all expenses are on the hold. In Maharashtra, LCOs have not been able to seed around 2 million STBs in 60% of Phase III areas as MSOs are not extending their lines there. This is the state in many other states too.
DTH Operators cannot achieve the numbers
DTH operators, although not part of the Cable TV Digitisation, were expected to capture all the smaller markets, even in the hinterlands but they also have a limited capacity to market, distribute and manage subscribers in these areas. According to the market experience of last five years, they can at the most connect a million subscribers in a month and estimated 60 million subscribers are yet to be connected with digital signals. This also includes Tamil Nadu market where it is the State Government that runs the cable TV but it has not been given a DAS licence as TRAI’s recommendations do not permit state governments to run any broadcasting venture.
According to DTH operators 16 million active DTH connections exist in Phase III areas and they expect another 2 million to be installed shortly. According to MIB, there are 4 million DD Free Dish Connections and 8 million digital cable connections in Phase-III. This means at least 10 million more STBs have to be seeded in Phase-III in this month which is next to impossible.
AP CM wants DAS deadline extended to Dec 2017
Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu has also written to the union minister of urban development, information and broadcasting, housing and urban poverty alleviation M Venkaiah Naidu seeking extension of deadline for digitalisation of Cable TV services in the state he governs.
In the letter dated 3 December, 2016, the chief minister stated: Under A.P. Fiber Grid Phase-I Project, a state-wide high speed Optical Fiber Network Infrastructure has been setup across the 13 Districts of the State leveraging the assets of the Electricity Department. A 24-Core ADSS Optical Fiber Cable has been laid for a length of around 23,000 Kms. over the electrical poles with its back-end electronic systems set up as the Points of Presence (PoPs) at 2445 identified locations. mainly electrical sub-stations. A state-wide control and command centre for this entire network has been commissioned at Visakhapatnam as a Network Operations Centre (NOC).
The services from AP Fiber Grid will be delivered by the Andhra Pradesh State FiberNet Limited (APSFL) to the end-users i.e. households. offices / enterprises in partnership with the Multi System Operators (MSOs) and Local Cable Operators (LCOs) etc, the letter stated.
The partners who provide the last mile connectivity through A.P Fiber Grid by hooking to the PoPs / NOC can immensely benefit from this system as they can provide triple play services — PTV, high-speed broadband and Telecom and value added services under a single umbrella, thus enhancing the scope for revenue generation. They will convert themselves as last mile operators, the key link between the AP Fiber Grid and the end-user
According to the letter 13,325 LCOs and MSOs have been registered so far with APSFL as business partners to provide last mile services. The works of AP Fiber Grid have been completed and at present the infrastructure is ready for delivering the intended Triple Play Services to the households / offices. Services are being provided successfully on a pilot/test basis to identified households/offices and the commercial Public services are planned to be launched in December 2016.
Chandrababu Naidu has stated that the digitalisation of Cable TV services is not yet completed in Andhra Pradesh. To accelerate this process, APSFL has initiated procurement of Customer Premises Equipment Boxes (GPON basic box+ IPTV box with WiFi) for enabling expeditious spread of AP fiber triple pay services in A.P. The CPE boxes will be seeded to the households through the APSFL's last mile business partners i.e., MS0s/LCOs. He also added that the registered MSOs/LCOs can also procure & seed the CPE boxes on their own.
Mr Naidu estimates that the households under Analog cable TV services will be digitalised through AP Fiber services in the next 1 year period. The last mile operators (MS0s/LC0s) need some more time beyond 31 December, 2016, to procure and seed Digital CPE boxes under AP Fiber Grid as the technology and the business model being implemented is first-of-its kind and unique in AP.
Keeping in view the potential for Digital empowerment of citizens through AP Fiber, which enables delivery of a host of citizen-centric digital services apart from IPTV, it is essential that sufficient time window is given to spread the services under AP Fiber Grid. Accordingly the CM has asked for one year extension of deadline for DAS –III and IV areas/ till 31 Dec 2017.
Status Quo in Tamilnadu
Madras HC has already ordered a status quo on the analogue switch-off in Tamilnadu on the appeal of state run ARASU Cable. Ministry has asked the Inter Ministerial Committee to study the TRAI recommendations on the subject of states running their broadcasting ventures that prohibit states or government departments from running their own TV channels or cable TV networks. The matter is still pending.
Regulations are not in Force
No broadcaster is adhering to ad cap rule created in consumer interest and all TRAI tariffs have been challenged in the courts. Even the minutes of the latest Task Force meeting reveal that interconnection agreements are not being signed by broadcasters and MSOs, public awareness campaigns are inadequate and ineffective and ' Make in India' campaign for using indigenous STBs has failed and MSOs are depending mostly on imports. TRAI is still in the process of framing new tariff orders.
However, once the government becomes adamant to close the analogue signals on 01 April 2017, millions of subscribers may be deprived of their television content and thousands of small operators running analogue signals will lose their livelihood. This is a very unlikely scenario as the government also has to face assembly elections in five states in the month of February and March.