Digitisation: Bombay HC gives the go ahead; Madras HC extends till 5 Nov

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI: The government’s drive for first phase of cable TV digitisation in the four metros from 1 November received a boost with the Bombay High Court dismissing a petition by local cable operators (LCOs) seeking its delayed implementation.

The digitisation push, however, hit a minor hurdle with the Madras High Court extending the deadline to 5 November on the ground that only less than 70 per cent of cable TV homes have installed set-top boxes (STBs) required to receive television channels in digital mode.

The Bombay High Court declined to grant relief to the LCOs saying a significant portion of television homes in the city has already been digitised. The Bombay High Court was of the view that the remaining households which still received analogue television signals would also be digitised in due course.

The judges hearing the petition said: "In June, you knew you have time till October. What have you done till today?"

The judges, however, wanted the Union government to consider giving relief to TV viewers during the Diwali festive season. "We do not want people‘s Diwali blacked out. Television is the basic source of entertainment for the average middle-class family. We are concerned about the consumers and not the operators," judge Chandrachud said.

The dismissal of the petition by the Bombay High Court was confirmed to by Kuldeep Puri, one of the petitioners and a promoter in Hathway Bhawani Cabletel and Datacom Ltd. A clutch of cable operators had approached Bombay High Court seeking extension of the digitisation deadline as they needed more time to get their networks fully ready for digital delivery of television channels.

The government has set 1 November as the deadline for compulsory switchover to digital delivery of television channels in the four metros of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

Apart from Puri, the other petitioners were Paresh Thakkar, all associated with multi-system operator (MSO) Hathway Cable & Datacom, and a group of cable operators from the eastern suburbs of Mumbai like Chembur, Ghatkopar and Govandi.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s counsel told the court that Mumbai was already 100 per cent digitised and it could be confirmed from the MSOs.

In Chennai on the other hand, the cable operators got interim relief. Madras High Court judge Paul Vasanthkumar pointed out that the government itself has admitted that the cable operators in the city had achieved less than 70 per cent of the target of installing digital STBs.

The Madras High Court order came on a petition by Chennai Metro Cable Operators’ Association (CMCOA) General Secretary M R Srinivasan.

The petitioner’s counsel V P Gopalan argued that there were four million TV households in Chennai but STBs had been installed in just 200,000 homes, while another 700,000 were covered by direct-to-home (DTH) television service providers.

The I&B counsel told the Madras court that according to data received by the ministry from the MSOs, 62 per cent of cable TV homes have switched to digital television, and after inclusion of DTH homes the figure goes up to 86 per cent.

Talking to from Chennai, Srinivasan said CMCOA will ask for extension of the deadline by at least three months when the case comes up for hearing on Monday.

CMCOA’s argument is that the actual number of homes seeded with STBs is only 200,000 out of 4 million cable television homes and that a large number of TV sets will go blank if the government sticks to the digitisation deadline.

Srinivasan also said the government will have to direct the MSOs to procure enough boxes and monitor the digitisation process on a weekly basis to ensure that the digitisation target is met.

The state-owned MSO Arasu Corporation, he said, was not present in Chennai and is yet to receive DAS licence which also added to the delay. Furthermore, other MSOs (Kal Cable and SCV) in Chennai are offering STBs only to cable operators who are paying in advance as per requirement.

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