Zee goes into HITS, DTH overdrive

NEW DELHI: Since 29 May, the smile on Jawahar Goel's face has broadened and the additional vice-chairman of the Subhash Chandra-promoted Zee Telefilms just cannot hide his excitement. Sitting in a second floor room of a yet-to-be-given-finishing-touches building in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, which houses Zee's state-of-the art facility for headend in the sky (HITS) project for CAS as also the proposed DTH service, Goel gleefully rubs his hands and quips, "Ab aayega mazaa (the excitement will begin now)."

He has reasons to feel elated. A strong supporter of conditional access system, which aims to bring addressability in Indian cable homes from 14 July, 2003, Zee and some other Chandra companies have got a shot in the arm with the Indian government?s announcement yesterday that there would be a hefty reduction in the customs duty on import of set-top boxes, albeit only till 31 July.

The move, explains Goel, is like giving an assurance to all those who have been supporting the government move on CAS and would also help them in executing their business plans with a larger degree of confidence. Not only did Goel, heading Zee?s cable arm SitiCable, through which the HITS project is being sought to be implemented, immediately say that the benefits would be passed on to the cable consumer in the wake of the customs duty reduction, but it also washed away part of his cautious optimism, which was evident when he had invited indiantelevision.com to visit the swanky HITS and DTH facility.

At that time, not sure whether CAS would become a reality or not because of stiff political and other resistance, Goel had lamented, "Just because there is rivalry amongst players in the industry, a postponement of the CAS implementation deadline is being sought. But I think such moves may be detrimental as this was a chance to bring some semblance of order into an industry that we ourselves call chaotic."

"We are ready to go live with HITS from the D-day and follow it up with the DTH service" ASC Enterprise chief executive Puneet Goenka But Goel?s optimism stems from the fact that Zee and some sister companies have been quietly working towards a time when the whole set up would be ready to implement the government-mandated CAS and also start a KU-band DTH service piping nearest rival Space TV/Star to the post.

Some Rs 4,000 million has been invested by the various Chandra companies in the HITS and DTH facility, which is close to being commissioned. The equipment from companies like Textronics, Phillips and Sony are in place, transponders on Insat have been leased, the array of TV monitors are flickering for a demo and the wooing of cable ops for partnership for HITS (marketed under brand name Galaxzee) is in full swing.

"In short, we are ready to go live with HITS from the D-day and follow it up with the DTH service," explains chief executive Puneet Goenka of another Chandra-promoted company, ASC Enterprise (the licence holder for uplinking channels for DTH and HITS), as he takes one around for a guided tour of the facility.

For India's biggest vertically integrated media company, Zee Telefilms, the circle seems to be close to getting completed on HITS, DTH.

The equipment landed in India around 21 April and in three weeks time the facility was put together. Not satisfied with 3 C band and 4 KU band transponders on Insat 3A satellite, Zee-ASC has requested for more KU-band transponders, which, Goel says, are likely to come through soon The additional KU-band transponders would be needed for the DTH service where Chandra's companies are seeking to provide between 48 to 60 TV channels in the first phase, plus 12 satellite radio channels. What's more, the glitzy facility at Noida also has the total capacity to play out 40 channels on a deferred basis.

Explains Goenka, "We have 10 Flexicarts (each of them can playout two channels) and some more would arrive soon. At the heart of the whole system is the Drake Automation, which helps in monitoring the whole process." The whole system does look impressive as a set of three TV monitors help in monitoring the progress and quality of the audio-video feed in three stages till the time the feed enters a consumer?s home and is played out through a set-top box.

The first stage involves downlinking of channels at the HITS facility, the second stage is when the encrypted channels are turned around or uplinked again to a satellite to be beamed back to earth and the third stage involves the feed being redistributed to the consumers by the cable service provider (MSOs and cable ops). "At each stage the quality of the audio and video feed is closely monitored for corrections to be made," points out Goenka, and if there is even a minute?s lapse it surfaces. For example, if a signal at any stage does not have the audio for 10 seconds, alarm bells start ringing and the fault is immediately rectified.

Chandra's men are better prepared than competition where CAS and DTH are concerned.

So, when would the test signals for the HITS and DTH projects start? Ideally Goel would have already started with the test signals, but with controversy around CAS implementation hotting up, he was playing the wait and watch game from the sidelines. "If all sorts of developments had not clouded the CAS rollout in recent days, we would have started the KU-band test signals from 27-28 May itself," he says as he punches some keys on his Nokia Communicator to access an important e-mail, probably sent from a vendor of the set top boxes in one of the South East Asian countries.

Knowing fully well that if they cannot deliver this time round, they would not be able to deliver for a long time to come, Goel also has reinforced the team that would lead the charge of the light brigade. Puneet Goenka, who would also oversee the DTH operations, would now spend more time in Delhi than in Mumbai where ASC Enterprise is headquartered and the marketing and distribution team of Siti Cable have been told to be in constant touch with him and Zee Turner CEO Sunil Khanna, another important link in the whole chain.

Even while this piece is being written, probably the first shipment of STBs may be on its way from South Korea carrying a load of about 50,000-odd boxes that would start to get seeded in the market from mid-June. Pointing out that in about five months time they expect to bring in 2 million boxes. Goel said, "If everything goes as planned, the first lot of the boxes would be in the market by 15 June (almost a month ahead of the CAS rollout deadline)". Some 13-odd manufacturers in South East Asian countries, according to Goel have been contacted for the boxes. The CAS software, of course, is being sourced from the Europe-based Conax under a multi-million dollar deal, while the subscriber management system would be partly put together by Cyquator.

The lucidity with which Goel reels off facts probably also goes to show that this time round Chandra's men are better prepared than competition where CAS and DTH are concerned. For India's biggest vertically integrated media company, Zee Telefilms, the circle seems to be close to getting completed. Unless some last minutes hitches crop up like other broadcasters like Star and Sony refusing to be part of a Zee-sponsored HITS platform. But that is something that has already been factored into the plans.

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