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New opportunities from cable TV digitisation in India

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India is home to approximately 60,000 to 100,000 cable TV operators. Assuming 20 kilometres of cable laid by every operator on an average, India has 1.2 to 2 million kilometres of cable! With digitisation of cable TV, the cable networks are transitioning from coaxial to optic fiber in the last mile. So, with access to so much optic fiber in premises where people live and work, why is digitisation of cable TV still not leading to a large upswing in broadband availability, quality of connections, and consumer use? After all, optic fiber can carry a much larger amount of data and video than coaxial cable can.

What is the Last Mile?

The last mile is called the ‘access’ network. It is called so since this network is accessed by end-consumers. The last mile network stretches all the way from the cable operator’s control room (seen in the picture below to the left) to a junction box (picture below to the right) near the consumer premises. At the junction box, the electrical signals carried on the optic fiber are converted into RF signals that are then transmitter through coaxial cable for the final few metres to the set top box at the consumer premises.

 Caption: (L-R) Typical View of a Cable Operator’s Control Room and Junction Box near customer premises.

In most places, the last mile network is in the form of an overhead cable, whilst sometimes it is laid underground.

The missing ‘Middle Mile’

Several last mile ‘access’ networks are aggregated at one point and then connected to the core network. This ‘aggregator’ network is where most challenges arise. Ranging from 0.5 kilometres to 3 kilometres and more in most cases, the aggregator network has to carry large amounts of traffic. Assuming a requirement of 2 Mbps per TV channel, a typical cable feed will have 400 channels or around 800 Mbps of video at any point in time. If we add any internet or data traffic to this, then the aggregator networks have to carry at least a few gigabits of data every second. Lack of rights of way for optic fiber and very high costs of laying any fiber running into a few lakhs of rupees for every 100 meters make fiber unviable commercially at low cable TV ARPU of Rs 200-300 per home per month. The missing ‘middle mile’ and the resulting adverse effect on monetization of the last mile networks is the bane of the cable TV industry today. Negative or zero returns on investment on last mile networks and set top boxes is the main reason behind the opposition digitization of cable TV in India has faced.

Making the model commercially viable

Investments in the last mile and advanced consumer premise equipment that deliver entertainment and a large number of other services can be justified only if monthly earnings per consumer or ARPU increase. This is possible only if the last mile carry internet/IP or data traffic which has better ARPU than cable TV. However, cable networks have to lay more optic fiber in the last mile for this data traffic to reach consumers. The only other solution is to turn the last mile network into an all IP network. However, this is not feasible in most cases since cable Multi-System Operator (MSO) networks transmit one-way RF feeds and not two-way IP feeds.

The Lukup Media model

This model relies on making the last mile network capable of carrying IP/data traffic along with RF traffic. The IP feed in this case carry both TV signals and Internet access, thereby potentially increasing the earnings from every connection the last mile network provides to consumers. This model also makes TV channels available on demand. Instead of broadcasting TV channels, on demand TV implies that channels are unicasted or streamed on demand. This reduces the stress on quality of service in the last mile network. This model also takes advantage of innovation in transporting IP traffic in the ‘middle mile’ by making it possible to transport gigabits of data per second without laying optic fiber or resorting to using unlicensed or lightly licensed microwave or wireless bands that do not guarantee quality of service for video traffic or assure availability of such large bandwidth.

Additional Revenue opportunities for Cable operators

In the scenario where the last mile carries IP/data traffic which enables cable operators to provide both TV and internet access through a single connection to consumers, vast revenue opportunities open up. In addition to TV revenue, cable operators can earn from providing internet access and services such as media storage in the cloud, delivery of educational content, high definition gaming, home automation and monitoring services and more.

Just like the US market where digitized cable TV networks deliver 60 per cent of America’s data traffic, cable TV networks in India are also poised to evolve in a similar manner providing dual play and eventually triple play services to consumers.

 (These are purely personal views of Lukup Media chief executive officer Kallol Borah and Indiantelevision.com does not necessarily subscribe to these views.)

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