Cable TV

DAS: The Chennai conundrum

MUMBAI: The country may have entered the third and fourth phases of digitisation, but one of the major metros, Chennai, seems to be lagging behind in the digitisation process from phase one onwards. However, it is time for them to buck up as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) may soon start cracking the whip on broadcasters, MSOs and LCOs in Chennai if they fail to comply with the digital addressable system (DAS) or digitisation norms, leading to severe repercussions.

In a meeting organised on 9 December by the TRAI with the three stakeholders, the Regulator said that it has already notified the TV channels in Chennai that are still transmitting analogue signals. The deadline to implement DAS was 1 November 2012, but despite the entire framework such as interconnection, quality of service and consumer complaint redressal and tariff being in order, the stakeholders haven’t really followed the process,TRAI reiterated.

One of the biggest hurdles in the implementation of digitisation is the dispute between the regulator, the information and broadcasting ministry and the Jayalalithaa-led Tamil Nadu government controlled Arasu Cable corporation that it should be given a DAS licence.

Arasu Cable, that delivers cable TV services to almost half the subscribers in the city, was revived in 2011 and rapidly grew under the alleged patronage of the Jayalalithaa government.

A TRAI consultation paper on monopoly in the cable TV sector released in June 2013 put it very aptly: "The Government of Tamil Nadu has incorporated Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV (TACTV) Corporation Ltd. on 02.09.2011 for distribution of cable TV in Tamil Nadu. It has taken over 27 Headends from the private MSOs. TACTV Corporation is providing cable TV services with most pay channels at a cost of Rs 70 per month to the public through local cable operators. Prior to this, another MSO, M/s KAL (Sumangali) Cable, which is a subsidiary of the Sun group, had dominance in the cable TV services in Tamil Nadu. However, KAL Cable continues to be dominant in Chennai city, where TACTV has not been registered as an MSO under DAS. Interestingly, channels of the Sun group, an integrated player providing both broadcasting and distribution services, were not available on the TACTV network for quite some time."

TRAI had then made it clear that Central and State government ministries, departments, companies and undertakings should not be allowed to enter into the business of broadcasting or distribution of television channels.

The TRAI consultation paper had estimated that Tamil Nadu has 1.3 crore cable TV homes out of which 50 lakh are subscribers of Arasu. Other estimates are that Chennai has 38 lakh cable TV homes and seven lakh DTH homes. These estimates put Arasu's subscriber base at 14 to 15 lakh.

Recent reports claim that the dominant MSO had even ordered a large shipment of STBs in June this year, but has not gone ahead since it has not been issued a DAS licence. Since Arasu is still delivering analgoue signals, most other MSOs too have been tardy on switching over to DAS completely, fearing they would alienate their subscribers.

In the meeting that the regulator had with the MSOs on 9 December, it ordered them to stop analogue signals and implement complete digitisation. It directed the MSOs to get the Subscriber Management System (SMS) in place with details of customers including their choice of channels.

It also hurled another missive at broadcasters, clearly ordering them to provide their signals only to those MSOs that are registered for providing cable TV services through DAS. MSOs have been cautioned to ensure that only digital transmissions are provided through their network and Customer Application Forms (CAFs) are collected soon.

TRAI has stated that it will closely monitor the progress of digitisation in the city and will also consider taking strict action against those who do not follow the protocol.

Even customers have been advised to ensure that they receive cable TV connection only from operators supplying DAS signals or face a blackout of their TV screens.

TRAI has also urged them to duly fill the CAFs at the earliest and submit them to their local operators. If they fail to do so, MSOs will be compelled to cut off transmission of those consumers, failing which they may will be in breach of law.

In Chennai, out of the 38 lakh cable TV homes, only four lakh STBs have been seeded. This leaves nearly 34 lakh houses receiving analog signals.

Will cable TV operators, broadcasters, and MSOs change the status quo and possibly face the ire of the state? They have not dared to challenge its might for the past year or so. On one side is the telecom regulator which is glaring down on them; on the other there is the state government has made its intentions clear when it asked the centre that Arasu be given a DAS licence. A conundrum if there ever was one.

Will TRAI's current warning turn out to be just what it is?

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