DD's DTH targets 1 mn subscribers by end-2005

NEW DLHI: A delay in the formal launch --- or dedication to the nation, as Prasar Bharati would like to put it --- of pubcaster Doodrashan's DTH service notwithstanding, it is going ahead with great gusto and marketing the service to subscribers.

"Some 200,000 (set-top) boxes have already been sold and we are targeting a million subscribers by the end of 2005," Prasar Bharati CEO KS Sarma told indiantelevision.com today.

DD Direct Plus, as the KU-band service is known as, is, probably, a unique experiment undertaken by a media company. For the first two years or so, beyond a one-time investment of approximately Rs 2,500, a subscriber would have to pay nothing.

According to Sarma, the feedback from dealers of set-top boxes in recent times has been encouraging. Demand for the boxes for this free DTH service has increased with the addition of some private satellite channels.

Private sector TV channels that are being carried by DD Direct Plus include Zee Music, Smile TV and ETC Punjabi (from the Zee stable), Sun TV, Kairali TV, CNN, BBC, Star Utsav, Aaj Tak and Headlines Today, amongst the 30-odd channels being part of the service at the moment, according to Sarma.

"We are optimistic that we would be able to meet our target of one million subscribers by end 2005," Sarma said, adding that the demand is building up because it's a free service, unlike an existing service, Dish TV, which is 20 per cent owned by Zee Telefilms.

For example, in South India, the price of boxes were jacked up by dealers to about Rs. 3,500 as demand upped with the surfacing of South Indian language channels like Sun TV.

If Prasar Bharati's assertions are to be taken on its face value, then DD Direct Plus has notched up more subscribers in about 75 days than what Dish TV has managed to do since its launch in October 2003. Dish TV's claimed present subscriber base is approximately 160,000.

Though DD's DTH service is primarily aimed at those places where cable or terrestrial TV's penetration is low, it is banking heavily on the inclusion of private sector channels, especially the popular entertainment ones (like Star Plus, Sony, Sahara One and Zee TV) on the platform, which has not happened as of yet.

But DD is optimistic that a proposed initiative of the sector regulator would help it net most private sector channels on its DTH platform. At the moment, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is in the process of fine-tuning the interconnect regulations, which envisage a controversial clause on making available all TV channels to all types of platforms on a non-discriminatory basis.

Industry sources point out that this particular clause is designed to help DD more than anybody else as it would necessarily mean all pay channels also being made available to a free non-encrypted DTH service --- a scenario that hasn't gone down too well with pay broadcasters who have been lobbying hard against the clause likely to be finalized before the commencement of next session of Parliament that begins from first week of December.

However, industry sources also point out, DD has become the first defaulter of the must-provide clause being debated as part of the interconnect regulations by Trai. The moment DD bagged the telecast rights of some of the cricket matches played in India last month, it sent a missive to Dish TV asking it to discontinue showing DD channels telecasting cricket. Dish TV complied with DD's request, but not before expressing to Trai its concern over this development.

There are over 900 dealers in 212 cities and towns attempting to push STBs for DD Direct Plus. A basic box for the costs approximately Rs 2,500 (slightly over $ 54) and can access all free to air channels without the help of any smart card.

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