Television

Nothing official about it that CAS deferred again

MUMBAI / NEW DELHI: In the capital it has been buried but in the country's commercial capital of Mumbai, as in the other two metros of Kolkata and Chennai, conditional access system (CAS) is still on - but only technically.

Late this evening the government announced that Delhi has been denotified from the CAS rollout map. Therefore, as per law, CAS is supposed to take effect in the designated Zone 1 areas of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai from 1 September.

Senior government officials also stated that talks are on with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, including an interaction between him and I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, and it seems that the opposition to CAS in Mumbai is "weakening."

The government may think it is weakening but that is not the message that is coming across in Mumbai. The Sena remains stauunchly opposed to CAS, petitions are pending in the Bombay and Chennai High Courts, and there is confusion among ground-level cable operators. The reality appears to be that CAS will effectively stand deferred on 1 September, the government's claims notwithstanding.

A senior I&B ministry official however, insisted, "CAS is on in Mumbai too, but for the first 10-15 days the government would take a lenient view and won't crack the whip on those consumers who access pay channels without set-top boxes or those cable ops who black out pay channels in Delhi."

That is exactly the position being taken by Mumbai's dominant MSO, the Hinduja Group's INCableNet, which has indicated it may resort to blacking out of pay channels. INCableNet COO Rajiv Vyas was quite categorical when speaking to indiantelevision.com that CAS would go into effect from 1 September in south Mumbai (Zone 1) as per schedule opn his cable network.

"Unless we get a notification from the Central government saying otherwise, at the stroke of midnight on Sunday, we are compelled by law to switch off all pay channels," said Vyas. It was to put this point across that a big colour ad was put out in the Times of India today, exhorting customers to buy set top boxes, Vyas added.

Vyas's comments have added significance because INCableNet controls most of the south Mumbai area that falls in Zone 1. The other dominant MSO in Zone 1, Hathway Cable and Datacom (in which Star India officially has a 26 per cent stake), was much more circumspect as to how it would go about its business post-1 September. A senior company official would not be drawn into a comment on what it planned to do. He however, reiterated that Hathway was ready to implement CAS but was awaiting further clarity from the government on the issue.

SENA SAYS NO ONE WILL DARE IMPLEMENT BLACKOUT

Shiv Sena Vibhag Pramukh and spokesperson on CAS Anil Parab paints a dim picture of the CAS rollout possibilities: "Yesterday I addressed a gathering of nearly 200 cable operators who have operations in south Mumbai. All of them were clueless about the implementation of CAS from 1 September. They weren't aware of the commission structure or the prices of the individual channels or the outright purchase price points of the STBs. Nearly 300,000 boxes are needed for Mumbai and the MSOs have sold less than 500 boxes - the remaining being test boxes. I shall raise these issues at the CAS implementation task force meeting scheduled for Monday in New Delhi."

When asked about possible 'blackouts' from Monday 1 September, Parab says: "Blackouts on such a large scale are totally ruled out. I don't think anyone from the industry will have to guts to do so."

Parab also denied that the fate of CAS in Mumbai would depend on the outcome of the proposed meeting between Balasaheb Thackeray and LK Advani. He emphatically stated that he wasn't aware of any such meeting. He said that the issues will be sorted out during the CAS implementation task force meeting.

GROUND-LEVEL OPERATORS PAINT GLOOMY PICTURE

Indiantelevision.com also contacted a number of ground level operators and this is the gist of what they had to say:

* The Shiv Sena is using its political power; seeking the support of cable ops to oppose CAS from 1 September. The MSOs are too scared of going against the Sena - because there is a strong feeling that the BJP-Sena will come to power in Maharashtra/Mumbai in the next elections. Several cable ops are confused. They cannot be seen (or not seen) either with the Sena or with the MSOs.

* Everyone is waiting for the outcome of Monday's CAS implementation task force meeting.

* The outright prices of boxes haven't been announced by a majority of MSOs - they have merely announced rental schemes. INCableNet is the only one that has offered incentives for outright purchase by consumers.

* With taxes, the prices of the plain vanilla boxes crosses the Rs 4,000 mark - the Sena will definitely oppose this as customer unfriendly.

* HITS hasn't been opposed by the cable operators; only the broadcasters have opposed it.

* MSOs are on the verge of finalising agreements (commission structures) with most of the pay TV broadcasters - some have already been signed secretly. Only a few pay TV channels (minor ones) are left behind. But, the MSOs won't declare these arrangements unless there is clarity about CAS rollout.

* Mumbai cable operators are thinking about increasing monthly cable rates (similar to threats by Delhi cable ops) but this is being opposed by the Shiv Sena and BJP's Kirit Somaiya as not consumer friendly.

The general feeling is that status quo will be maintained for the present with cable subscription rates at around the Rs 250 levels.

IN KOLKATA, CHENNAI ALSO THERE IS OPPOSITION

In Kolkata, the Left Front government is opposed to CAS as they feel the Centre has taken a decision on the matter without holding any discussion with the concerned states.

In Kolkata, the Left Front government is opposed to CAS as they feel the Centre has taken a decision on the matter without holding any discussion with the concerned states.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, West Bengal chief minister said in Kolkata yesterday: "The Centre had kept the state governments in the dark and interacted only with the operators. There are still a lot of complications on the ground. Not everyone can afford the instrument (STB). Besides, I have learnt that Delhi is not introducing the system from 1 September." West Bengal chief secretary SN Roy has already communicated the state's view -- that CAS should be pushed back -- to the I&B ministry.

The scenario is no different in Chennai. The president of Tamil Nadu Cable TV Owners Association Kayal Ilavarasu has been quoted as saying: "We are ready to implement the government's directive on CAS but we can't do it as of now because it is yet to come out with a concrete structure."

The Delhi cable fraternity, meanwhile, is in a militant mood. "We would go ahead and do selective implementation of CAS even in Delhi from 1 September by insisting on routing the less popular pay channels through the set-top boxes (whatever little has been seeded in the market)," National Cable & Telecom Association president Vickky Chowdhry told indiantelevision.com.

Zee Telefilms vice-chairman and Siti Cable head Jawahar Goel too was non-comittal on Delhi saying, "We are reviewing the situation." It is learnt that Zee/Siti Cable may move the court next week against CAS rollout deferment in Delhi.

Another cable body, the Cable Networks Association, has already moved the Delhi High Court. The petition alleges, amongst other things, that the government move on deferring CAS in Delhi would result in financial losses to the cable ops.

As things stand a whole lot hinges on the CAS implementation panel's meeting of 1 September that is to take stock of the CAS situation. Whatever is left of it, that is.

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