Uncertainty looms over 30 June deadline for cable TV digitisation

MUMBAI: Uncertainty looms large over India‘s first target of cable TV digitisation in the four metros by 30 June.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is yet to come out with its tariff policy and rules for digital addressable systems (DAS). This is unlikely to happen next week as well with the Supreme Court asking Trai to wait for due turn to hear the sector regulator‘s plea on the tariff order for DAS.

Trai had approached the Supreme Court to permit it to fix the tariff rates as it is constrained by an interim order by the apex court that has allowed broadcasters to charge 42 per cent of their cable rates from DTH and other digital addressable service providers (Trai had fixed 35 per cent).

"It looks like the deadline of 30 June for the complete switchover from analogue to digital in the four metros will get delayed by a few months. There is no urgency on the part of Trai to come out with a policy framework for DAS. The industry needs time to get everything in order for the digital switchover to happen smoothly and effectively," said the head of a leading MSO on condition of anonymity.

The various stakeholders of the broadcast industry are awaiting Trai‘s order before they can stitch commercial deals with their partners to roll out digital addressable cable. The multi-system operators (MSOs) and last mile operators have to conclude revenue share arrangements. Broadcasters will also have to get into agreements with the MSOs on pricing of their content. Other contentious issues like basic tier need to guided by a policy framework.

The government, however, has stated clearly that there would be no delay. Information & Broadcasting Secretary Uday Varma has publicly stated that the 30 June deadline for digitisation in the four metros "is sacrosanct".

"Nobody knows whether that 30 June deadline is sacred anymore. The government has stayed firm but the industry needs time to work upon it. This can only happen after the rules are laid down by the sector regulator," said the head of a television channel distribution company.

The digitisation in the four metros would require a deployment of around 10 million set-top boxes (STBs) and huge investments.

"The companies will have to go to their respective boards and draw up a business plan. They will have to know their cash flows as it would require huge investments. Adequate time should be given for a proper rollout," said a senior executive who leads operations of a distribution platform.

The remark by Firhad Hakim ‘Bobby‘, the Urban Development Minister who is said to be close to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has lent uncertainty to the mood for cable TV digitisation in Kolkata. "We were not consulted on this issue. If Trai or other agencies had discussed it with erstwhile CPM government, we are not responsible for that," the minister had said.

"Other political leaders have not opposed the deadline for cable TV digitisation yet. So we don‘t know how the remark by a lone minister would influence the deadline. The more important thing is that the rules have not yet come from Trai. We have to be careful that the digitisation is properly implemented this time. People shouldn‘t lose their confidence on digitisation because of faulty implementation," said the CEO of a MSO who did not want his name to be revealed.

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