Technology

GOVERNMENT OKAYS CABLE LAW CHANGES; MOOTS PRIVATE UPLINKING

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The Union Cabinet last week gave the green signal to changes proposed by the information & broadcasting ministry in the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act (CATNRA), 1995. The changes will have to next pass muster through Parliament when it opens again on 12 April, after a recess.

Under the proposals, all free-to-air TV channels (be they Indian or foreign) will have to follow state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan?s programming and advertising code. Cable TV operators will be responsible for the content of the channels they carry. Television channels with a 20% foreign ownership cap will be able to uplink directly from India without going through overseas telecom carrier VSNL?s earth stations. The permission to uplink from their own earth stations or teleports is tentatively scheduled to be given to them from August. Currently, the southern Indian language channels Raj TV, Sun TV, Asianet, Eenadu and infotainment channel TVi are uplinking from India using VSNL?s facilities. The amendments also seek to put restraints on subscription-based channels from slapping unwarranted carriage fee hikes on cable operators. Channels like Star Movies, Star Sports, Zee Cinema, AXN, ESPN, Discovery, Cartoon Network, National Geographic are all likely to be affected by this amendment.

I&B minister Pramod Mahajan told a local newspaper that the government wanted to "protect subscribers from exploitation by pay channels in view of some complaints that some sports channels hike fees before major events."

As a measure to protect subscribers? rights, Mahajan said, the government is also likely to notify the rate that they should pay cable TV operators. A system may also be set up to make pay TV services available to only those who want them. It is likely that it will force the addressability issue that has been dogging the cable TV business for some time. The onus is likely to be placed on cable operators, programmers and hardware manufacturers to jointly promote the use of addressable set top boxes in subscribers? homes.

The amendments also make it mandatory for cable TV operators to carry the satellite (as against terrestrial being carried currently) transmissions of DD I and DD II on a particular frequency, which can be received even on old TV sets with outdated tuners. DD I and DD II are the main commercial earners of the DD Network. The amendment to the CATNR Act says that apart from these two channels, the basic tier of 11 channels (the prime band tier) offered by cable operators should contain one regional service, a news, a sports, an entertainment, a music, and a movie channel.

Mahajan, however, quipped in a local daily, a day later that the detailed amendments would be carried out only after consultations with all the broadcasters. He is scheduled to meet up with the I&B secretary Piyush Mankad to discuss a few details in relation to the proposed amendments on 30 March.

Earlier in the week, he is reported to have returned a note on DTH the I&B ministry drew up. The note is to be studied by each member of the Group of ministers on DTH. The lifting of the DTH ban could also take some time as Mahajan has indicated that the DTH timetable has been shifted to coincide with with permission to all channels (even majority foreign-owned) to uplink from India.

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