Govt asks Trai to draft rules to check cable monopolies

MUMBAI: Information & Broadcasting minister Manish Tewari Monday said the government has asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to draft rules that would help in keeping a check on monopolies in the cable television distribution space.

The broadcast sector regulator will be looking into monopolies at a local, state or regional level, a move that can have deeper repercussions in the cable TV industry. It will also examine other related gamut of issues.

"A near monopoly like situation exists in at least three states - Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Orissa. In local areas, a second cable operator is often not allowed. This move will ensure competition, protect consumers and benefit broadcasters," said the head of a multi-system operator (MSO).

India‘s digitisation drive, thus, will come with accompanied policy changes.

“I have requested the Ministry to make a reference to the Trai as to how do we ensure that monopolies do not continue to subsist in the marketplace,” Tewari said during his first formal interaction with the media after being appointed as I&B minister.

Tewari said monopolies will kill the entire purpose of cable TV digitisation which is to give more choice to the customers. Digitisation, he said, will provide several tangible benefits to customers including picture quality, freedom of choice and value added services, which will make it interactive.

“Monopolies are the anti-thesis of choice so I have asked the Ministry to make a reference specifically so that we can deal with this issue as go forward with the digitisation between now and 2014,” he added.

He also allayed fears that the government was targeting any specific MSO in the garb of checking monopoly saying that the objective is to allow wider choice to customers.

“Essentially this is not about any state. I think the issue is very germane. When you are trying to create a transparent architecture which empowers the consumer, I think in the process of empowerment, it is also essential that they need to have a wider choice in terms of operators that they could choose from. There are similar provisions with regard to sectoral caps in telecom. Even when we do the radio auction, we mandate such caps,” he said.

Interestingly, the reference to Trai comes in the backdrop of the government holding back issuance of a DAS (digital addressable system) licence to Tamil Nadu government-owned MSO Arasu Cable. Arasu applied for a licence in July but its application is still to be cleared. In Punjab, Fastway Cable Network is a dominant player while Ortel is a powerful local MSO in Orissa.

Talking about the first phase of digitisation, Tewari said the digital penetration in the four metros stands at 96 per cent which goes up to 97 per cent if direct-to-home (DTH) connections are also added.

“If you look at it in a broad sweep, the fact is that we could go through a process which involved almost a crore households across the four major cities of India without any major obstacles. I think this has been a significant achievement,” he held.

He also said that the support of state governments was paramount for the success of second phase of digitisation across 38 cities. The deadline for the second phase is 31 March 2013.

“Since we are going into the second phase of digitisation, I would request all the state governments to co-operate with the Ministry. This is critical to the success of the digitisation which is going to be a catalyst in empowering the consumer,” he asserted.

On the issue of bringing news broadcasters under the ambit of Press Council of India (PCI), Tewari said the government was in favour of self regulation.

“On balance we would like to lean on the side of self regulation and if at all the stakeholders do desire that we play some role in strengthening those self regulatory mechanisms, then we are prepared to look at it with an open mind."

Tewari also felt that it was not appropriate to bring news broadcasters under PCI as the sector came into existence much after the council was formed. “I think it would not be appropriate to extrapolate a mechanism which was there in existence earlier to a sector which has been opened up later,” he averred.

Mamata Banerjee in ‘favour‘ of Digitisation

The I&B minister told reporters that the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had ordered for set-top boxes (STB) for state secretariat which reflects her support for digitisation.

"If I am correct...I read that she had placed order for set top boxes for Writers Building the day the deadline came to an end. This clearly shows that the digitisation process is a good move for the consumers and the sector as a whole," Tewari said.

Tewari also ruled out action against MSOs in Kolkata for not adhering to the digitisation deadline saying, "We have been patient and we would expect that the state governments and MSOs concerned do honour the deadline."

According to I&B secretary Uday Kumar Verma, 1.85 million cable TV homes in Kolkata have been digitised. "It is a matter of days for achieving digitisation," he said.

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