Regulators

Chennai & DAS: Madras High Court puts I&B, TRAI in a tough spot

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MUMBAI: It seems like deja vu. It was around this time last year that Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Manish Tewari was urging the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to move fast on deciding on the issue whether the Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corp should be given a digital addressable system (DAS) licence. The TRAI had responded with a paper issued on 28 December 2013 on “Issues related to entry of certain entities into broadcasting and distribution activities.”

It had recommended that the Central Government, State Governments and their entities should not be permitted to enter into the business of broadcasting and distribution of TV channels. Based on that, a DAS licence was not issued to Arasu, despite continued pressure from the Centre’s allies AIADMK and Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa.

Now the ball has landed back with the I&B Ministry over the weekend, with the Madras High Court reportedly telling it to once again take a stand on the MSO's DAS licence. The court also directed the TRAI not to take any coercive action against it even if it continues to deliver analogue signals to its six million odd subscribers in the state. And it also said the case was adjourned for four weeks.

"..it is not known to this court why the Centre has not taken any decision on the application of Arasu. When the authorities of the Union of India and the state instrumentality are not in a position to take any decision on granting or receiving the DAS licence, as the case may be, the ultimate sufferers are the subscribers. Therefore, I am of the considered opinion that the subscribers cannot be put to hardship. As such, there cannot be any disconnection of signals to the subscribers by the authorities," said Justice V Dhanapalan on Friday.

The Madras High Court issued these orders based on a petition that Arasu cable had filed with it. Arasu, on its part, had taken a decision to move the courts following TRAI's announcement, earlier this month, that Chennai's cable TV operators, broadcasters, and MSOs should take positive steps towards complete DAS in Chennai - one of the initial phase I metros - or face its wrath.

Clearly, the I&B Ministry is in a catch 22 situation. The TRAI in its recommendations has been clear on disallowing state control in cable TV and DAS.

With the Madras High Court now telling the Ministry to reconsider its earlier stance on it, could the court's direction provide it with a parachute? With the current government at the Centre appearing to be on shaky ground following the Congress (I) debacle in four states, it might well use this as a trump card to win some points with the AIADMK in what appears to be building up as a tough battle for it in the 2014 elections. Additionally, the ministry and the TRAI also wants tardy Chennai to move full steam on digitisation and licensing the largest player Arasu – albeit it being state owned – might well help it achieve that objective.

But should the I&B Ministry continues to hold on to its position that it will not issue the licence, digitisation might not really progress as Arasu will not take things lying down as it is a tour de force in the state and in the city of Chennai. With the court ruling in its favour, Arasu is well within its rights to continue with its analogue feed now, no matter how much the TRAI cracks the whip. And that’s something which will make the government’s digitisation diktat look incomplete, with one major metro abstaining from it, as it has been doing for nearly a year or so now.

Meanwhile, local cable TV in Chennai continues to be pained by what’s being going on in the state. Some cable TV operators who are not part of Arasu's network in Chennai went on a hunger strike yesterday to protest against the analogue signals being transmitted by it.

“First and foremost a call needs to be taken on Arasu’s licence but more importantly TRAI needs to caution broadcasters who are giving these analog signals to them. They should be asked to sign official deals with MSOs for giving digital signals only,” says Chennai Metro Cable TV Operators Association General Secretary M.R. Srinivasan.

Clearly, it seems as if the I&B ministry and the TRAI are caught between a rock and a hard place. Where will the two go from here now is anyone’s guess!

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