Swarajspeak on CAS, Star News, content regulation & FM Radio

NEW DELHI: India's information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj does not foresee any "bottlenecks" in the implementation of conditional access systems (CAS) in the country and firmly believes that the present uplinking norms for the electronic medium for news content, needs to be reviewed. Especially in the light of the Virgin Island-based Star News Broadcasting seeking government nod for uplinking from India for the 24-hour Star News channel. This process may take 15-20 days.

Her ministry is looking at getting a bill on Broadcasting Council to monitor content on TV okayed by parliament by March end as part of its agenda for the first quarter of 2003 which also includes providing more teeth to the Press Council of India.

The ministry has also extended the jurisdiction of a task force in the ministry on costing of the basic tier of service to formulate --- in consultation with other stakeholders of the industry --- the composition of the basic tier. The mandate is to keep the price of the basic tier low, probably below Rs 100.

"I don't foresee any bottlenecks in the implementation of CAS and the rollout will depend on the availability of set-top boxes on which CETMA (the apex body electronics goods manufacturers in the country) has given certain assurances," Swaraj told

Reiterating that the government does not want to mandate technology for addressability, Swaraj said, "What's more, I have received letters from three chief ministers to include their states too in the first phase of CAS implementation (which is supposed to be in the four metros initially)."

The three chief ministers who have asked their states to be included in the first phase of CAS rollout are Andhra Pradesh's Chandrababu Naidu (pitching for CAS in Vijaywada), Karnataka's S.M. Krishna (rooting for Bangalore) and Vilasrao Desmukh who wants more cities in Maharashtra, apart from Mumbai, to be covered through addressability.

The minister also pointed out that the government is waiting for the presidential assent on amendments relating to CAS subsequent to which it will get notified after which the normal rollout can begin.

"I don't want to mandate anything that is not implementable (referring to the three CMs) as it will all depend on the availability of set-top boxes (STBs)," Swaraj said, adding, "CETMA members will start manufacturing of the boxes as also importing them soon."

In a paper submitted to the government CETMA had stated that depending on the demand, the price of a STB would come down. According to the paper, if there is a demand for 10 lakh STBs, mostly of them analog, the price can be as low as Rs 1,500.

She also debunked the theories of doubting Thomases that the lack of interoperatability of STBs will create a problem. "The Bureau of Indian Standards (which had been mandated to finalise technical specifications for STBs) hasn't told me also that analog boxes can be hacked. So, why this talk that piracy issue being not addressed ?" she asked.

Brushing aside claims that in a post-CAS scenario, the viewers will ultimately end up paying more for lesser number of channels, Swaraj countered, "I think pay channels are likely to turn free to air after CAS (implementation) because their ad revenue may get hit. If that does not happen, then they'll have to improve the quality of content to make people pay for their channels. The consumer gains after all as even after the basic tier, if the average consumer subscribes to other pay channels, the monthly outgo will not be more than Rs 360 (something which cable operators were threatening to charge in some parts of the country if pay channels continued increasing their subscription)."

Dwelling on Star News' proposal Swaraj said that in the light of the application from a foreign company with foreign directors asking for uplinking permission for a news channel, "it's the appropriate time to seek Cabinet's guidance" on the issue. 

"It may take 15-20 days to be finally taken to the Cabinet," Swaraj said when asked about a time frame for taking the Star News issue to Cabinet.

According to Swaraj, the options before the Cabinet on the issue are as follows:

* Maintain the status quo and let things continue as they are ?

* Recommend a complete ban of foreign investment in the news category in the electronic medium

* Suggest that the FDI component in the news category in TV be made equal to that in the print medium where foreign participation in general news is capped at 26 per cent ?

* Recommend having FDI capped at 49 per cent, prevalent in telecom and other broadcasting segments

"I don't want to express my personal opinion now, but would like the Cabinet to take a collective decision and tell us which we will follow," Swaraj said.

But when asked by whether Star News can continue taking content from an Indian company and have that company uplink from India, Swaraj said, "of course that can happen. It is being done now by NDTV."

She also clarified that Star India Pvt Ltd would be considered an Indian company as per the laws of the country and it can supply content for Star News channel.

However, she added that though Zee Telefilms had already got uplinking permission (despite having NRI/OCB component), it would be governed by any future policy decisions as and when they are taken and would have to comply by them.

"Let me add that all the directors in Zee were Indian (unlike those in Star News Broadcasting)," Swaraj said. But she made it clear that despite alternatives available to corporates, in case of news because speed is a crucial element, uplinking from India becomes paramount if competition has to be taken on.

The government is also examining whether teleport owners (who lease out facilities to outsiders) can be given permission to uplink in KU-band mode.

"Since we want to make India a hub for uplinking, we are examining whether KU-band uplinking can be given to teleport owners here as there is an application before us," Swaraj explained.

The second phase of opening up cities to private players for FM radio is also likely to be done in the first quarter of 2003 where initially some 75 cities have been identified.

"We want full coverage of the country through FM radio and would appreciate it of efforts are duplicated in cities by private parties where All India Radio already has stations.," Swaraj said, adding that private players would not be allowed to do news and current affairs programming on private radio stations

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