Chennai not ready for digitisation; TN govt to seek deadline extension

MUMBAI: An uncertainty looms over Chennai as the Union government presses for shutdown of analogue cable TV services in the four metros from 1 November. The state-backed Arasu Cable TV will be in no position to roll out digital cable TV services in the city within the next three weeks as it is in the midst of finalising its digital infrastructure suppliers and is preparing to request for an extension of the deadline so that consumers are not deprived of watching their television shows in Chennai.

The Jayalalithaa-led state government will write to the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry seeking extension so that Arasu gets time to install the set-top boxes (STBs) in consumer homes. A comfortable time zone of at least three months is being considered but it is not clear yet how the Union government will react.

"Who said Chennai is ready? We are going to seek for an extension of three months. We won‘t be able to complete the roll out of digital services by 31 October," Arasu Cable TV managing director D. Vivekananda told

Arasu Cable had earlier floated a tender for providing digital head-ends, STBs, encryption solutions and subscriber management system (SMS) but cancelled it because it found the costs too high. A few consortiums had participated in the tender including the ones led by Wipro with Cisco as a partner. The Motorola consortium had offered a cost of around Rs 1.15 billion while Wipro‘s was about half of that for the whole digital infrastructure and management.

"We scrapped the tender as it was cost prohibitive for us. One of the participants quoted Rs 500 million for the digital head-ends. So we have gone in for a new tender and will likely be deciding whom to go with on Saturday," said Vivekananda.

Arasu has trimmed down the new tender and decided not to have new digital head-ends. "We have four digital head-ends. We decided not to go for new head-ends as it would have proved too costly. We will upgrade our Ericsson head-end and make it compatible for offering 200 television channels. In any case, the regulator (Trai) has given three months time for upgradation of capacity to offer 500 channels," he said.

Arasu is looking at one million STBs and will be paying its vendors across 12 months with a small upfront payment. "This is a reversal from the earlier payment terms," a participant said on condition of anonymity.

Arasu has also decided to handle the management services itself. "We are recruiting 50 people," said Vivekananda.
Cisco has decided not to participate in the new tender.

"They wanted conditional access system that would support multiple STBs. We found that and other financial terms unfavourable," a senior executive at Cisco said on condition of anonymity.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting quoting data provided by multi-system operators has said that 0.25 million set-top boxes have been installed in Chennai till 9 October which represents 56 per cent penetration of digital cable. As on 9 October, there are 1.56 million households with cable TV subscribers and 0.69 million direct-to-home customers in chennai.

"These figures have no truth. We do not believe in them. There will be chaos if the 31 October deadline stays as consumers won‘t be having the STBs in their homes by then," said Vivekananda.

The Chennai cable operators have also disputed the government numbers on STB penetration in the city. The Chennai Metro Cable Operators Association (CMCOA) had earlier written a letter to the Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni saying the government‘s claim of digitisation in Chennai is incorrect.

According to CMCOA, the Chennai DAS area has four million cable television homes, but only 160,000 homes have been seeded with STBs. "You may call for latest SMS report of any pay channel billed with two existing MSOs Kal cables and Jak Communications," CMCOA general secretary M R Srinivasan said in the letter.

Nobody knows what the true figures are. But why couldn‘t Arasu be ready within the deadline period? "We have gone in for tender transparency. It takes time," said Vivekananda.

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