Direct To Home Television A Practical Perspective

Direct to home (DTH) television service, more popularly known as direct broadcast satellite service, is coming to India after a government ordained delay of three years.

In March 2001, government allowed Ku-band direct to home television broadcasting by issuing a notification and laying down the ground rules for companies wanting to enter DTH in India.

The initial excitement in media companies and even the public dissipated when details of the notification became available.

Abroad, DTH acts as a strong alternative to cable TV. In the US it has broken the monopoly of local cable companies and offers two viable options in lieu of cable. It enables the customer to receive a minimum of 200 to 300 channels on a fairly economical basis.

The other advantage of DTH is the availability of satellite broadcast in rural and semi-urban areas where cable is difficult to install.

Due to digital compression techniques, many more niche channels are available than can be provided by cable operators.

The services are more reliable vis-?-vis repeated breakdowns that can occur in cable transmissions as against satellite broadcast.

DTH also offers digital quality signals which do not degrade the picture or sound quality. It also offers interactive channels and program guides with customers having the choice to block out programming which they consider undesirable.

One of the great advantages of the cable industry has been the ability to provide local channels, but this handicap has been overcome by many DTH providers using other local channels or local feeds.

In the US, there are at present two major DTH providers. DirecTV provides a series of 225 basic channels and premium services.

DirecTV has understood the requirements of the present day customer and provides various segments of programming like gearing the services towards sports and other premium services. DirecTV also now supplies local channels and regional channel programming like Spanish. It offers a pay per view movie service with up to 55 choices of movies.

DirecTV subscribers can also receive high speed internet access through Direct PC and Direct Duo Services.

Revenues for fiscal 2000 for DirecTV have been estimated at $ 4.8 billion. DirecTV expects to add another two million customers to total 11 million by fiscal 2001.

Its competitor, Echostar is fast catching up with DirecTV. This also provides an equal number of basic channels and premium services. It has also pioneered dual focus dish to provide local channels.

Echostar is also improving its fiscal performance. For the 3rd quarter of 2000, it earned revenues of $ 698 million but booked a loss for the 3rd quarter of $ 130 million.

While the number of Echostar dish network subscribers is growing strongly, the enhanced revenue from additional customers is offset by increased marketing expenses due to stiff competition from the strong US cable industry.

In Europe, the general view has been that Europe could take up to five years to catch up with the US. On the other hand, in the area of mobile devices and interactive television, Europe is leading the US and the rest of the world. Europe has seen a great move towards digital television and interactive television. Similarly Europe leads the US with over 25 million DTH customers.

Europe is served among others by the Eutelsat 5 satellite Hotbird network to provide more than 530 Television channels and 400 digital radio channels to approximately 24 million homes in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Europe has developed the ability to do satellite television differently from the US. Out of the 530 Television channels, more than 200 are free to air. Television channel providers are allowed either to jointly commercialise the transponder capacity or utilise the Sky-Plex package to provide DTH signals to various homes.

Eutelsat is paying increasing attention to data casting and micro broadcasting to specifically targeted markets. Recently, Eutelsat has announced proposed launch of a new satellite to provide 850 Television channels by the last quarter of 2001. This satellite will provide Ka band technology.

The Indian scenario is potentially exciting with a series of decisions taken by the Government to regulate the Indian DTH scene. But the initial excitement in Nov. 2000 has largely been transformed by a realistic look at the guidelines for DTH service in India.

The key features of the guidelines are:

* The total foreign investment cannot exceed 49 per cent.

* No broadcast or cable company can own more than 20 per cent.

* The applicant company will have to pay an entry fee of Rs 100 million, pay 10 per cent annual revenue and execute a bank guarantee of RS 400 million for the duration of the 10 years license.

* Violation of license conditions can include revocation of license and / or penalty of up to RS 500 million.

* The licensee will have to set up an Indian earth station in 12 months and provide access to various content providers on a non-discriminatory basis.

* The set top boxes required to receive the encrypted signals will have to be open standard boxes.

* The DTH license cannot be used for other modes of communication including voice fax, data Internet unless specific licenses for these value added services have been obtained from the competent authority.

On the face of it, the DTH regulations are quite in tune with media policy of the ruling alliance. However, there are many pitfalls in the policy some of which are outlined below.

1. A modest entry fee of RS 100 million and a bank guarantee of RS 400 million has been mandated with no restriction on the number of DTH operators in the country. However, the DTH operator will have to pass on 10 per cent of revenues as annual fees to the government. It is assumed that this is gross revenue without deduction of expenses and is not 10 per cent of net profit which would have been more equitable.

2. The period of license is for 10 years and non exclusive. However, there is no provision for automatic renewal of the license after 10 years based on performance of the DTH operator.

3. No broadcasters or cable television company is allowed to own more than 20 per cent of DTH. This has supposedly been done to prevent emergence of vertically integrated monopoly. This is despite the worldwide move towards convergence and even the provisions of the convergence bill!

4. The DTH operator shall have to follow the advertising and programme code of Doordarshan and maintain a video record for 90 days of advertisements and programmes. A DTH operator who does not own content will, like the present cable operators, be solely responsible for the implementation of advertising and programme code. No liability has been put on the content providers at all.

5. Apart from open architecture for STBs, the government has mandated that DTH operators should not discriminate between various channels wanting to get on the network. This is a welcome development as it will enable content providers to be available on all competing DTH platforms.

6. I&B Ministry will be the licensing authority until one is set up. There is no mention in this notification about the Broadcast Regulatory Authority as mandated by the Supreme Court in Cricket Association of Bengal Judgement in 1995.

7. The DTH operator is bound to carry all Prasar Bharati channels on most favourable terms offered to any other channel. No mention is made about the present requirements under the Cable Act to carry a minimum three Doordarshan channels on prime band, despite the fact that carriage of all Prasar Bharati channels may not be commercially desirable. Of course, it will not be easy to convince any government to leave it to the DTH operator to carry only specific Prasar Bharati channels.

8. The DTH operator is allowed to carry value added services such as fax, voice or broadband as long as it gets clearance from the right competent authority. While the government is willing to allow data, fax and broadband service from the DTH operator, the stipulations of getting clearance from the right competent authority without creating a single window approach will in effect delay provision of value added services by the DTH operator and is against the provisions of the convergence bill planned to be introduced in Parliament in May 2001.

The only positive announcement after the government notification so far has been from Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited which plans to set up a neutral (?) DTH facility using its large number of earth stations to give opportunity to broadcasters wishing to join a common platform.

Europestar has also announced that it is willing to take up an appropriate stake within the 20 per cent guidelines in any consortium of DTH players and would contribute its satellite capacity of 30 transponders with eight dedicated to India.

The Star India digital platform group President has been quoted in the last week to say that the DTH guidelines are 'extremely stringent' and the risks are much 'higher' than possible rewards. He has been quoted on a website (indiantelevision.com) as stating that Star is preparing a business plan and will decide upon the entry into the DTH arena only if it is "commercially viable". This is to be contrasted against an interview given by the Star CEO (Peter Mukerjea) in November 2000 that Star would like to launch DTH and then justify its case to the Government.

Another interesting development which has taken place on 26th March, 2001 is the launch of a new Telugu Channel titled Manna Television on a Ku-Band satellite transponder of ISRO. This will commence telecast on a pilot basis of long distance education programmes and help State Government departments of Andhra Pradesh with weather and seasonal updates.

In November 2000, when the government announced plans to allow DTH in India, there was a general view expressed by the media pundits that the 35 million strong cable television industry in India would be seriously affected. The cable television industry on the other hand has been gearing up for value added and digital cable services for the past two years and installing fiber optic at the trunk lines with a view to be able to provide cost effective broadband and narrowband value added services to the Indian customers at a very cost effective price.

Many Indian MSOs have begun to supply cable modems to provide a dial free high bandwidth access to the Internet and also customise broadband content using interactive digital mode to give customer quality service at very little additional cost.

The broadband providers using cable platform are already providing on line news, movie trailors, music videos and teleshopping. In other words, the oncoming DTH revolution could well turn out to be a damp squib provided cable companies gear up for the challenges of the future.

On the other hand, in the US, the incremental growth in the television subscribers is much faster in the DTH mode than the cable mode. It is estimated that there are already approximately 15 million DTH homes in the US as compared to 60 million cable homes.

In the foreseeable future of the next five years, the total number of DTH homes in India will not exceed five million. But what if DTH companies were to provide all the new forms of value added services by obtaining the concerned licensing?

I believe that the DTH operator who has the economic capacity to obtain all the value added services licenses will probably build a new business model wherein as much as 25 per cent of the revenues could flow from value added services.

An important aspect is the subscriber cost to avail of DTH services. The pizza sized dish and digital decoder will cost at least RS 20,000/- and the average subscriber fee will be a minimum of RS 2,500/- a month. This puts DTH out of reach of 90 per cent customers of cable television.

Further, if Indian manufacturers take on the challenge of fabricating set top boxes which are cheaper than the imported version then it is possible that DTH will be a commercially viable option in the near future.

In conclusion: Unless VSNL and Prasar Bharati combine with private content providers the launch of DTH network appears to be

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