Government's cat-and-mouse game on digitisation

MUMBAI: The Information and Broadcasting Ministry is playing a cat-and-mouse game as the industry waits anxiously to hear the last word on whether the digitisation deadline in the four metros is set for later date.

The ministry is, perhaps, waiting for the High Courts in Mumbai and Delhi to give a verdict so that it will be saved the task of taking the tough decision itself. The news broadcasters in particular have been pressing for the government to stick to its deadline of 1 July for digitisation in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.

Pushed on all quarters by a sliding economy, a weakening currency, shaky financial markets, charges of scams and arrival of state elections, the least the government wants is antagonising the media. And the best cushion would be the High Courts directing a six-month extension.

A petition by a clutch of cable operators will come up for hearing in Mumbai on Tuesday and in Delhi on Wednesday. Later on 25 June, the Tdsat will hear the petition filed by Hinduja-owned MSO IndusInd Media & Communications Ltd (IMCL) challenging the Trai order for digital addressable systems.

The central government is crippled in a way by political compulsions, with its allies in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal wanting an extension. The state-owned Arasu Cable, floated under the Jayalalithaa government, is not ready for digitisation and has called for tenders to kick-start the process. The digital set-top boxes (STBs) will have to come, the infrastructure has to be built and the logistics ready for digitisation. All this takes time and a six-month extension is the only practical solution.

Let‘s move to the Mamata Banerjee-ruled state of West Bengal. The situation in Kolkata is better than Chennai but it is not too healthy either. There is a shortfall in supply of STBs and the MSOs are not ready to take up the digital challenge. Not yet. Kolkata has a sprinkling of regional multi-system operators (MSOs) in the city and they are still arranging for finances and STBs. The state government, in any case, wants digitisation to knock at the door of the consumers only after Dussehra, Bengal‘s most popular festival.

So even if I&B minister Ambika Soni and her lieutenants were to listen to their radical voice or buckle under the pressure of the broadcasters, there is very little headroom to manoeuvre a case for complete digitisation in the four metros by 1 July. The truth is that nobody is completely ready yet. The Trai traiff order came too close to the deadline date and there are no MSO-LCO or MSO-broadcaster deals yet. They are all in various stages of negotiations and we have already crossed the mid-month stage. So even a miracle can‘t bring in digitisation over the four metros by 1 July.

The I&B ministry is only too aware of this grim reality. If there is a reluctance to announce an extended date, it is because it has the luxury of shifting the blame to the courts.

There is another reason for the government to wait like Godot. A court verdict will ensure that the extended date (if it allows for that to happen) will become the final word and there will not be any possibility of a further shift in timelines after that.

The I&B Ministry has promised to finalise its decision this week. Indications, however, suggest that the government has informally taken a decision to shift the deadline by at least another three months. Some sources even indicate that after coming to grips with the ground reality, the government is thinking of a six-month extension.

We will know this week where the winds are blowing. And, hopefully, the government will end the cat-and-mouse game.

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