Govt's technical teams to ensure only digital signals go to LCOs

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI: The government has fanned out technical teams in the four metros to ensure its 1 November deadline for shifting to digital delivery of cable television is complied with fully.

The Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry has deployed teams comprising technical experts in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata to make sure multi-system operators (MSOs) deliver only digital signals from their head-ends.

The coordination committee of Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) and MSO Alliance has on its part set up a task force to keep a check on piracy for continued provision of analogue cable TV services to consumers who have not yet installed set-top boxes (STBs).

The broadcasters and MSOs had a meeting with Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) chairman Rahul Khullar and I&B secretary Uday Kumar Verma on Monday, where they were given a clear message that the 31 October sunset deadline for analogue cable in the four metros is absolutely sacrosanct.

Even as it decided to ignore calls from political parties to postpone digitisation, the government claimed 93 per cent of the television homes have already shifted to digital reception of television channels, including those who have subscribed to direct-to-home (DTH) services.

The I&B Ministry said it has sent teams consisting of technical experts to visit various head-ends of national MSOs as well as independent MSOs in the four metro cities. The technical teams will collect on-site data regarding preparedness of MSOs for switchover to digital addressable system from analogue system.

The teams would also look at details of subscriber management systems and call centre facilities set up by the MSOs.

More importantly, the technical teams would also look at the systems available with the MSOs to ensure only digital signals go out to local cable networks from 1 November.

IBF president and MSM CEO Man Jit Singh said, " IBF is taking an aggressive stance against signal piracy. We have set up groups comprising members in all the four cities who will conduct raids with the help of police and have the (defaulting) head-ends seized. As per the law, it‘s illegal to provide analogue signals after the deadline."

The broadcasters and the MSOs have now joined in the government’s efforts to carry out switchover to digital delivery of television channels, though many of them privately have disputed the government’s figures on homes that have converted to digital. The government’s claim on digital television penetration are taking into consideration census figures on cable TV homes.

According to the 2011 census, the four metro cities have a total of 8.3 million of TV homes. The I&B Ministry has arrived at its estimates of digital TV penetration after extrapolating data received from MSOs on a daily basis on STB deployment.

According to industry officials, the actual number of cable TV homes is higher than what the 2011 census has stated. None of the players have the exact estimates on cable TV homes as local cable operators under-declare their total number of subscribers to avoid paying to the MSOs.

There will be a large number of homes which would find their television sets going blank from 1 November if MSOs follow the government diktat in letter and spirit and stop analogue systems completely.

MSO Alliance secretary and CEO of Den Networks SN Sharma said, "The co-ordination committee set up by IBF and MSOs have formed a task force to attend to complaints of piracy. The broadcasters under IBF have the authority to conduct raids through police in case there is piracy of signal."

The I&B Ministry on Tuesday claimed 100 per cent digitisation in Mumbai, 95 per cent in Delhi, 85 per cent in Kolkata and 86 per cent in Chennai. These figures include homes with DTH connections.

The ministry said the rate of installation of STBs has touched an all time high. On 29 October, it said, about 88,000 set top boxes were installed out of which more than 61000 boxes were installed in Delhi alone.

It said the control room set up by the ministry has been receiving an average of 400 calls per day since 15 October 2012. MSO representatives also sit in the control room to reply to queries from 8.00 am to 10.00 pm every day. This has provided a platform for common people to have their concerns/queries on the digitization process resolved.

Mamata Banerjee opposes digitisation

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has, however, threatened to launch an agitation if analogue TV transmission is going to be blocked after the 31 October and accused the centre of trying to adopt a path of “confrontation” with the states on the issue.

“When set top boxes are not in hand, analogue system should be allowed to continue and the centre has no right to blackout TV. We cannot simply accept this stand of the centre,” Banerjee told a press conference in Kolkata.

She said “If necessary, we will launch a state-wide movement and later spread it to the whole of India.”

BJP wants two-month extension

In Delhi, former union minister and BJP general secretary Vijay Goel demanded that the last date for installation of STBs should be pushed to at least 31 December.

He said Delhi has more than 4.5 million cable TV customers but more than half of those still have to get STBs installed. Causing TV sets to go blank with Diwali around the corner is ‘uncalled for’, he told reporters. The majority of those who had not installed STBs cannot afford them in ‘times of such sky-high inflation’, Goel said.

Goel said that he would be writing to the new I&B Minister Manish Tewari and urge him to postpone the deadline until year-end.

LCOs say ground work not prepared

A delegation from the Cable Operators Federation of India (COFI) headed by its president Roop Sharma called on Goel and apprised him of their grievances. The delegation said they are not opposed to digitisation but enough time should be given to consumers for a smooth transition.

Goel said that currently there are five major MSOs who are forcing their terms on the people and even the cable operators are not kept in the loop by them. He said the choice should be with the consumers as to whether they want to watch digital or analogue transmission in keeping with their paying capacities. He said 70 to 80 free to air channels should be provided free of cost to consumers. Such a proposal was initiated in 2003 under the Conditional Access System.

The STBs are priced between Rs 800 to 2000 each and there will be monthly rentals, entertainment taxes, service charges and a minimum of Rs 100 rupee additional electricity bill per month for each of these boxes. He said the worst part was that old TV sets which do not have the AV connectors cannot support these new boxes, thus defeating the very purpose of digitisation.

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