Government to issue notification disallowing post-CAS bundling

NEW DELHI: The local law of the land cannot be taken for granted and its adherence should be must.

This seems to be the strict message that the Indian government is giving out to broadcasters, cable operators, MSOs and others on the contentious and 

controversial issue of conditional access (CAS) and its implementation in the four metros from 14 July.

For the first time, the government also officially confirmed that they are planning to bring in another notification of rules under an existing Act to see that broadcasters don't resort to any sort of bundling --- cutting across present bouquet lines --- in a post-CAS regime.

"If a certain law has been passed by Parliament, it should be adhered to. Those who feel that dilly-dallying tactics (on CAS) can be resorted to, should think otherwise," information and broadcasting ministry (I&B) secretary Pawan Chopra told today. This stance of his is in line with what he told pubcaster Doordarshan, yesterday, in an interview.

According to Chopra: "Bundling of any channel cannot be allowed under the present rules and if there is any lacunae, then we are thinking of notifying additional rules on this. Every cable operators has to display the individual price of every pay channels and the consumer must be free to choose whatever he wants without feeling any additional financial burden."

However, a bureaucrat's job, as anywhere in the world, is to pacify everybody. In line with that, the I&B ministry also plans to hold meetings with broadcasters on the issue of unbundling of channels and the maximum retail price of pay channels. "We'll take the convenience of the broadcasters too, into consideration so that they don't feel robbed of any level playing field," Chopra said.

The government also feels that "continuing lobbying" by broadcasters and others would not be of much help as the policy guidelines have been framed after much deliberations. And this also includes the availability (or the lack of it) of set top boxes (STB) which would be needed to route the pay channels through. No STB, no pay channels.

According to Chopra: "If a certain section of the industry feels that delaying the implementation of CAS would solve problems, then we don't think so. Even if CAS implementation, for instance, is deferred by six months, 

then also the situation is likely remain the same as it would on 14 July. So, why insist on one-city rollout?" Yes, the government has a point.

But so do the broadcasters. The broadcasters, at least some of them, are contending that because adequate number of STBs is not likely to be readily available by 14 July at affordable prices, there would be chaos in the four metros. Yes, that's likely to happen.

If one looks at the situation from the government's side, the thing is, if the industry has failed to iron out issues, including that of boxes, in six months time, the chances of them getting sorted in another six months time are less. What guarantee is there that the broadcast and cable industry would not crib after February 2004 (taking into account a six month extension on rollout does become a reality)?

Still, the government is willing to lend its ears to the broadcasters and sweeten the CAS pill a bit for those think it is too bitter.

According to government officials, if the broadcasters want to have dual feeds of their (pay) channels and come to an understanding with the service providers that in certain areas --- for example, where people from the 

economically weaker section live and cannot affort boxes for pay channels --- they won't charge the cable ops for the household, then the government would not interfere in that process.

"Such subsidisation (of pay channels) is between the content and service provider where the market forces are coming into play. The government does not see there is any need to interfere," senior government official explained. No wonder Star News has already started a so-called free to air feed for downlinking in non-urban areas in an effort to, what Star says, increase penetration.

But this dual feed route is something that many a broadcaster managing pay channels may be contemplating as it looks like an honourable escape route from the days of lofty statements that "no pay channels would turn free to air". Especially if the government is willing to look the other way.

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