Cable TV

NXT Digital-InCable merger gets shareholder nod; D’Silva bemoans lack of ecosystem support

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MUMBAI: Hinduja Ventures Ltd’s (HVL’s) proposal to demerge its NXT Digital headend in the sky (HITS) business from its subsidiary Grant Investrade Ltd (GIL) and merge it into its cable TV MSO offshoot Indusind Media & Communications Ltd (IMCL) got the thumbs up from its shareholders at its AGM yesterday.

The cable veteran and IMCL MD & CEO Tony D’Silva says that IMCL is now on the road to fully digest NXT Digital. “We are following the legal process and have already applied to the Bombay High Court and we have also informed the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.”

What drove the reorganisation? D’Silva explains: “When we launched NXT Digital, it was incorporated under GIL as an independent company. At that time, we thought it’s better to apply for a licence under GIL and we got the licence. We also thought that it’s better we keep GIL as the company away from IMCL so that no operator will feel that this is a backdoor entry to take over IMCL. But now the time has passed. GIL is an established company and so the NXT Digital move.”

HVL whole time director Ashok Mansukhani adds that work is already on to integrate both NXT Digital and InCable. Says he: “We are starting with the backend. We are already synergising both the services. We have one of the best subscriber management systems (SMS) in HITS – ICC from Hansen Technologies. InCable is using Magnaquest for its SMS it is also migrating towards ICC. They will be kept separate but there will be one front end irrespective of who the operator is. “

D’Silva says that more than 700 cable operator premise equipment (COPEs) have been installed so far. “An estimated three million cable TV subscribers are watching television through our HITS platform,” he reveals. “The philosophy of NXTDigital is very clearly to encourage the cable operator to grow and develop his/her business and also that we are a pure service provider. We don’t want to own any network and that message has gone to all the operators across the country.”

NXT Digital is offering four different packages to MSOs and LCOs who opt for its service. The Gold Cope cost about Rs 13.5 lakh and gives a bouquet of 550 channels, the Silver costs Rs 10 lakh (450 channels) and the Bronze Rs nine lakh (350 channels). A new Eco package has been introduced for Phase IV areas with its price point being Rs 4 lakh (250 channels).

D’Silva points out that almost 60 per cent of the installations are of the Gold Cope Unit in Phase III areas. “Even smaller markets are wanting HD channels,” he says.

But even so the management at NXT Digital is pretty frustrated, and are especially concerned about the future of cable TV digitization. Says Mansukhani: “The final date of digitization is the bottleneck for us. Some 50 cases are pending in the high court. On Monday some cases will be hear. On 26 September there will be five cases in front of a chief justice and on 5 October 35 cases will be heard by a single bench. The chief justice has received these cases and whether they were issued in the constitutional law and interpretation of legislation - that decision will be taken on Monday.”

The nuking of the sunset date for digitization in phase III areas by the various court cases has blown up the progress of NXT Digital. “We had earlier agreed between the IBF, MSOs, TRAI and MIB jointly that till 31 December 2015 the sunset date for Phase III broadcasters would not charge the digital rate to facilitate to process of digitisation,” says D’Silva. “That agreement is valid even today. But broadcasters are charging cable operators analogue rates in Phase III areas and they are slapping us with digital tariffs for the same regions. How is this fair? NXT Digital does not own any network…we are providing services. The same principle should apply to phase IV also where 60 million homes need to be digitized.”

D’Silva exhorts broadcasters and the industry to give it its total support on HITS as it is a step forward in infrastructure sharing (which is a subject of a consultation paper that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India put up recently).

“This must be allowed. How will a big MSO in a small area function when the switchoff happens? He has to come to me. The fact is banks are sharing infrastructure in ATMs. Telcos are doing so too. Why spend money on overbuilding infrastructure,” he asks. “Excepting one broadcaster, all of them are permitting us to provide passive services to MSOs who have a DAS licence and have content agreements with them with the proviso that they pay directly to the broadcaster subject to the SMS report filed by our HITS platform. This one broadcast network is hell bent on undermining our effort to provide television to far flung subscribers in the interiors.”

He further adds” “Then, the subscriber in Phase IV is paying Rs 60-80 for his channels. With a digitized package it could go up to Rs 160 or so. Even otherwise he may have to pay Rs 40 for just a handful of encrypted channels. The beneficiaries are only the broadcasters and they don’t have any digital model for rural India. The BARC ratings shows more and more free to air channel are popular in rural India. Who is going to pay for pay channels?”

Asks Mansukhani: “Are we going to have a digital divide in our country? Digitisation will only be limited to metropolitan India and benefits will not flow to rural India. And going by the current goings-on there is a great danger of that happening.”

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