Taking a note of the situation, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology is investigating the reality and is talking to all the stakeholders to understand the issues and the solutions. The Committee also wanted to understand the need of interoperable STBs for cable and DTH services and the issues involved in implementing this. The Committee talked to Cable Operators on 12th June when a delegation of five operators including GS Oberoi, Vikki Chowdhury, Ravi Gupta, K K Sharma and myself gave a presentation on LCOs and small MSOs’ views on ‘Cable TV Digitization and Interoperability of Set-Top-Boxes’. We explained the plight of cable operators of Phase III and IV, particularly in rural areas. The Committee chaired by Sh. Anurag Thakur, MP, patiently listened each problem in details and showed concern on how these problems impacted the consumers.
Some of the issues taken up were:-
1. Choice to consumers: Consumers are still forced with bouquets created by large broadcasters. A- la-carte choice is not given to the consumers, or where it is offered, prices have been kept so high that it is out of reach for a common man.
2. Itemised bills: Bills for the services including tax details and content cost are not given to consumers. There is still no transparency in the service.
3. There is no uniformity of Tariff: As broadcaster’s content distribution is highly discriminatory and not in favour of small operators, subscribers of small networks get services at a higher cost or the smaller stakeholders have to subsidise the services, thus suffering heavy losses in competing with the large MSOs.
4. Indigenous manufacturing: Indigenous manufacturing of STBs has yet to pick up as tax and duty structure does not support lower costs in comparison with imported STBs. Also, the larger players are not yet procuring from the local manufacturers. Thus, indigenous manufacturers do not get the advantage of economy of scale.
5. Interoperable STBs not available: Although DTH guidelines make it mandatory to provide interoperable STBs to consumers, none of them is doing so till date. Even cable STBs are not available in the open market as required by the regulations as there is no interoperability.
6. LCOs completely neglected by the Ministry: Instead of helping small operators to fight competition with DTH, DTH operators are being encouraged to take over subscribers of small operators, so that STB penetration can be increased at the cost of businesses of thousands of small cable operators. The Ministry's aim appears to be only meeting the deadlines at any cost.
7. Pay Broadcasters do not care for any regulation: Since, the government emphasized on making maximum pay channels reach consumers, major portion of subscription amount goes to Pay Broadcasters, leaving little funds with the MSOs and LCOs to upgrade their networks for broadband services, one of the objective of cable TV digitisation.
8. No FDI is coming in: Although government has increased the FDI in Distribution sector to 100%, no FDI is coming for the last mile infrastructure. Even banks and financial institution do not finance upgradation of last mile networks. Increase in FDI helps only the large MSOs who further use it for acquiring small cable TV networks or the international ‘Pay’ Broadcasters for creating more number of channels rendering thousands of small stakeholders jobless.
The present situation confirms what the former I&B Minister, Ms Ambika Soni told the Parliament that digitization was never the priority of the government at the Centre. Even the present NDA government is following the same principal. In the last five years of Digitisation, government has not taken any major step to facilitate the process. Digitisation law has been framed only to enforce a technology without much planning and without much preparation for such a gigantic task involving 700 million people resulting in massive gains for the government and large players. Tremendous hardship and inconvenience faced by millions of consumers and small players in the industry has simply been ignored.
It may be recollected that one of the objective of amendment made to the Cable Television Act in 2011 was to organise cable television networks into digital infrastructure:
- To bring it at par with the newer technologies like DTH, IPTV and OTT which are already digital.
- Upgrade cable networks for broadband services to help raise the GDP.
- Protect thousands of cable operators in rural areas against fierce competition from DTH operators by introducing HITS technology.
- Give choice to consumers at affordable tariff, and
- Bring transparency and accountability in the service leading to higher revenue from subscription and taxes
Unfortunately, none of this has been achieved in the last five year years of digitization which has been already declared as successfully completed by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.
The prerequisites for digitization, as recommended by TRAI in 2010 for the industry to go digital, were just ignored by the Ministry leaving stakeholders on their own to implement a technology without any financial, technical and manufacturing support.
We also suggested some of the ways to improve the situation which included:-
a) All cable networks must be declared as National Broadband Infrastructure. Assess the extent of fiber laid by MSOs and Cable Operators and plan its utilisation by infrastructure sharing at the State/ Centre level.
b) Enable MSOs to Upgrade to IP and provide OTT services to meet the challenges of the future.
c) Cable Operators and MSOs to be encouraged to become Virtual Network Operators of converged services, taking a Universal Licence. Make the terms and conditions of the licence easier and friendly for even small operators.
d) Use of satellites must be explored for distributing broadband in hinterlands where digital signal is not available. HITS is not effective in India as two HITS companies have failed making operators lose large investments without any hope of compensation. There is only one HITS platform left at present and that too is struggling to survive as domination of a few broadcasters make it difficult to operate.
Manufacturing sector to be given all necessary help
Concerned departments must analyse why indigenous manufacturers are not successful in selling to large companies who depend mostly on imports. Even after five years of digitization, we have not made much of a progress in this regards. ‘Make in India’ has literally failed in this industry.
Interoperability of STBs is essential to develop indigenous manufacturing
In a market like India, interoperability is essential to give freedom to consumers in choosing a service provider. Although commercial interoperability has been introduced by the telecom regulator TRAI, it hardly gets implemented and millions of STBs have become e-waste due to inactive DTH subscribers. According to TRAI report, out of 97.05 DTH subscribers, there are 34.4 million inactive subscribers.
Interoperable STB is a mandatory condition for DTH licencing but none of the operators are following it under the pretext of consumers spending more for interoperable STBs. Even MSOs are not willing to introduce interoperable STBs as it would give consumers freedom to change their service provider like in the mobile or telecommunications. As far as cost is concerned, when operators can offer high priced HD, 4K STBs and DVRs, they might as well offer interoperable STBs too. This will also increase local manufacturing, bringing down the prices.
The Committee members listened very carefully to all the points made by us and assured to look into the matter further. We hope the government understands the importance of Cable TV infrastructure and takes remedial measures to improve the situation.