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Could India blocking ABS’ FTA TV signals lead to breach of ITU norms?

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MUMBAI: Government of India, it seems, could find itself in a Catch-22 situation over a directive to Department of Space (DoS) to block free-to-air channels available in India broadcast through Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS)-2, a foreign `bird’ not licensed to provide KU-band or DTH services in India. Reason: such a blockade may breach international laws relating to spillover of satellite signals.

Signals of ABS-2 satellite ---hosting on its South Asian beam a Nepalese and a Bangladeshi DTH service licensed in their respective countries --- have been spilling over into India and a mix of Indian, Nepalese and Bangladeshi TV channels are available to Indians as a FTA service that can be accessed via some plain vanilla hardware (read set-top boxes and an antennae) at a nominal cost. This has raised the heckles of India authorities over possible national security.

While last week junior minister for Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) Rajyavardhan Rathore informed Parliament that his ministry has requested DoS to block the “unauthorized” DTH or KU-band ABS-2 service, the foreign satellite operator feels it has not broken any Indian regulations.

ABS source claimed that the issue is of “natural spillover” of satellite signals into neighboring countries that are outside the service area of the countries offering licensed DTH services, but falling within the coverage area of the satellite. Such issues have been debated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) where it was concluded that such a spillover or overlap of coverage areas (countries) is in “full compliance” with ITU provisions. “Consequently, ABS is not in violation of any existing provisions/guidelines stipulated by the government of India,” a company source explained.

ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies or ICTs. It allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develops technical standards that ensure networks and technologies to seamlessly interconnect and strives to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide. Originally founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, ITU is one of the oldest existing international organizations. India is also a member of the organization and Indian satellites’ slots too are co-ordinated by ITU.

Categorically denying that the company has “been providing” a DTH service in India, ABS sources said ABS-2 satellite has two customers on its South Asian beam. The customers are Bangladeshi DTH service provider marketing under brand name Realvu and Nepalese Humro TV platform. Both these services are licensed in their respective countries, the sources claimed, adding there was a “natural spillover” of these services into India that is being lapped up by Indian viewers as it has a mix of regional content in an un-encrypted format.

ABS also clarified that it does not sell any hardware in India, nor does it advertise or provide any service to the Indian TV channels within the country. The ABS series of satellites are owned by the Bermuda-based Asia Broadcast Satellite, a comparatively young global satellite operator with offices in the United States, UAE, South Africa, Philippines, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Of course, this ABS-2 service is available to Indian consumers at no monthly charge and all they need to do is install a standard STB, easily available in the open electronics hardware market, which also means that the TV channels on the platform stand to gain from additional eyeballs that can be used for marketing purposes by the TV channels.

According to an estimate, presently there are approximately 20 satellites broadcasting over the Indian skies beaming channels into India and viewers wanting to watch those channels can watch via an ordinary STB and pointing the antenna to the desired satellite’s geo-stationary location. Though this synchronization of antennae with a specific satellite’s position may be technical in nature, there would be hordes of service providers in India with adequate knowledge to do so for a small price.

Free to view platforms have an advantage over paid DTH services like Dish TV or Tata Sky or Videocon d2h or Reliance BIG TV in the rural areas of the country where consumers may not be too quality conscious. This FTA phenomenon is evident from the considerable reach of pubcaster Doordarshan’s KU-band or FTA DTH service, FreeDish, and a clamour amongst private TV channels too to be on the platform that has a limited shelf capacity.

Rathore, while responding to queries from three Members of Parliament last week, had said the move to block ABS-2 signals was being done keeping in view any threat to national security via a service not licensed in India. He said MIB was the licensing authority for DTH services in India and it had not received any application or reference from ABS regarding ABS-2 services. However, the minister also admitted that there was no violation of downlinking guidelines by licensed Indian channels on the ABS-2 platform.

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