CAS Bill not listed for tabling in RS this week

NEW DELHI: The much-awaited Cable Networks (Regulations) Amendment Bill 2002, which aims at facilitating addressability in Indian cable homes through conditional access system (CAS), has not been listed in the agenda of business of the Indian Parliament's Upper House (Rajya Sabha) for this week.

Parliament, which reconvened today for the Winter Session, saw discussions on elections in the the strife-torn Gujarat state dominate the proceedings in the Lower House (Lok Sabha). The Rajya Sabha was adjourned as obituaries were read out, including that relating to media baron and Hindi-language newspaper Jagaran owner Narendra Mohan (a vocal supporter of FDI in the print medium) who died recently and was a sitting rajya Sabha MP.

Government officials told today that CAS, a matter that could not get RS' approval during the last session of Parliament due to its controversial nature, is not likely to be moved this week by the information and broadcasting ministry. Every ministry has a pre-determined day when issues relating to it are discussed in the two Houses of the Parliament. I&B ministry's day in RS happens to be Monday.

Will CAS be listed in RS next week? "We are not sure. It depends on I&B ministry and minister Sushma Swaraj," was the vague reply given by a government official when quizzed on the issue.

While the Lok Sabha has okayed the amendments to the Act facilitating CAS, RS members have shown more resilience and have refused to give a green signal before a proper discussion on the issue. Swaraj, who had earlier claimed some consensus on the matter, these days is noncommittal. "Let us say there is a broad agreement (on CAS)," she had said during an interaction with journalists last month on the occasion of the completion of three years (out of the mandated five) of the government.

When spoke to some RS members of Parliament from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress --- two main opponents to the smooth passage of the CAS --- last week, they opined, in private, that left to themselves, they ideally would like to have some discussion on CAS before okaying it.

During the last session of Parliament, CAS was listed on the agenda of the RS and later, because of apparent opposition from the Opposition members, had to be delisted in a bid to arrive at an out-of-Parliament consensus.

Moreover, the issue of pricing of the basic tier of cable service, consisting of all free-to-air channels, is yet to be sorted out. At a recent meeting of the costing committee for CAS, which includes government as well as industry representatives, there was no unanimity on the price of the basic tier.

The cable operators have been lobbying for the price to be in the range of Rs 125-150 per month per subscriber, but have indicated that an Rs 100 figure is something they can live with. This, of course, includes the Rs 30 flat service charge the government will extract per subscriber. The government (read the finance ministry), however, appears to have settled for an Rs 70 to 80 rate as being reasonable. Subtract the Rs 30 tax and what the cable ops have in hand per subscriber will be Rs 40 to 50. The viewers, of course, think that both the government and the industry are taking them for a ride.

At a seminar on pay channels and CAS, organised by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) in Delhi last week, the response from some residents welfare associations (RWAs) was lukewarm - over 400 were invited and some 40 turned up - and those who did came down heavily on cable operators "for raising prices every three-four months."

When it was told to RWA representatives that CAS would solve much of their problems, the counter poser was it did not make sense for an average cable consumer to invest in the set-top boxes no matter how cheap they came. "Why should we (invest in STBs)?" was the question that reverberated throughout the seminar.

Global hardware manufacturers like Philips and Thomson too, are not much enthused. A senior executive of Philips said, "The way (the) government is going, CAS may just end up as a bad piece of legislation leaving everybody unhappy." He also pointed out that hardware manufacturers like Philips don't see enough volumes being generated even if CAS is implemented for them to start manufacturing in India resulting in a fall in STB costs.

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