CAS: Government tries playing peacekeeper

NEW DELHI: Even as the Indian government in a much-awaited notification finalised the price of the basic tier of cable service comprising free to air channels, the information and broadcasting ministry officials are slated 

to meet the service providers, multi-system operators (MSOs) and cable operators, tomorrow (9 May) over conditional access (CAS) issue that is getting more complex by the day.

According to a ministry official: "The government, at the moment, is going by the earlier announced deadline of 14 July for CAS implementation. But, seeing the complex scenario over the rollout, a meeting with the service providers has been necessitated."

The government official, however, did not divulge the exact nature of the agenda of tomorrow's proposed meeting with the MSOs, but added that the meeting with the cable service provider is part of a new initiative of the 

government to play the peacekeeper and some other meetings may also be held with other stakeholders of the industry, including broadcasters.

However, some cable industry sources indicated that the government may sound out the MSOs and use them as a sounding board for a proposal that is gaining currency in the ministry: of variable pricing of pay channels and that pay channels may, just may, be allowed to operate a dual feed in FTA mode for some time after 14 July. Star News has already started providing a dual feed that is not in an encrypted form. Ditto for FTV.

As reported earlier in indiantelevision, a formal government diktat regarding some other aspects of CAS --- barring of bundling of pay channels and variable pricing--- is expected soon.

In an interesting development, according to government officials, representatives from Balaji Telefilms met up with ministry officials. The details of the meeting were not immediately known. It is being speculated that the meeting may have something to do with a post-CAS scenario. Meanwhile, after anxious moments, it has been finally been made official --- the price of the basic tier of service and that the rollout of conditional access system - will be in the four metros.

The Indian government today made public issuance of a notification fixing the price of basic cable service of at least 30 free to air channels at Rs 72. But the notification does not make it clear whether the local taxes are inclusive in this price or not.

The notification states the Central government "hereby specifies the MAXIMUM amount, which a cable operator in the aforementioned areas (Chennai metropolitan area, municipal council of greater Mumbai area, Kolkata metropolitan area and national capital territory of Delhi) may demand from a subscriber for receiving the programmes transmitted in the basic service tier provided by such cable operator to be Rs 72 ONLY."

This does raise some doubts that local taxes may have been included in the amount of Rs 72. The notification also states that FTA channels over and above the prescribed basic tier would also be made available to the subscribers at no extra cost.

This effectively shuts the door on speculation that viewers would have to pay a premium decided by the cable service provider for more channels than the minimum 30 prescribed by law. However, if the cable op sees no benefit from offering more FTA channels, the question that arises is why then would he be incentivised to provide say, a Sun TV, to a Tamilian residing in Delhi.

The cable op would be well within his rights to tell the unhappy "minority" of viewers to lump it and go and raise their concerns with the government.

As of now, the government does not appear to feel (at least in public) that a storm is brewing in the CAS cup. Pointing out that the government does not intend to postpone the implementation of CAS deadline (14 July), India's information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad today told Rajya Sabha (upper house) that informal discussions with multi-system operators reveal that orders for STBs are being placed by them.

To an another question on any threat from the cable ops going on a strike in the metros as protest against the policy on cable networks, Prasad replied in the negative saying the government is not aware of any strike threat.

The government has also said there is no proposal under consideration that would limit the number of commercial breaks on pay channels.

Prasad told Rajya Sabha today, a day before the Budget session of Parliament is adjourned sine die, that the government is in dialogue with the stakeholders of the cable industry, including the manufacturers (of STBs) 

regarding pricing and technologies of the boxes.

"It is expected that both digital and analog STBs could be used (in a post-CAS regime)," Prasad told a section of policy makers here, maintaining an earlier stand that CAS would "give the subscribers the choice to pay for only those pay channels they wish to watch," which seems like a distant dream for consumers at the moment, given the confusing scenario that is unfolding.

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