Cas paves way for consolidation

MUMBAI: The complexion of the cable TV industry is fast changing. Cas (conditional access system) is paving the way for consolidation as cable operators need to find money to subsidise set-top boxes (STBs), set up a digital system, and build a proper service network.

The might of the three big multi-system operators (MSOs) is prevailing with the weaker players tumbling down under in the markets opened for Cas barely a month ago. Delhi has already gone that way with Home Cable Network, Spectranet, Satellite Channels, Sanjay Cable Network and Star Broadband Services aligning with Hinduja-owned Incablenet, Hathway Cable & Datacom or Zee Group's Wire & Wireless India Ltd (WWIL).

Soon Mumbai's Cas subscribers will also get shared between these three MSOs. Raja Nadar, an independent cable operator, says his JPR Network will surrender its independent status and partner with an MSO by the end of this month. Though he has seeded 5,000 STBs, he is struggling to fund new arrivals and is losing subscribers to WWIL. "There is no business model left for us. We can't raise debt and even if we somehow do, we can't recover revenues large enough from our digital subscribers to work out a repayment schedule," he says.

Cas in Delhi and Mumbai is becoming a three-MSO battle. "That's the record for everybody to see. That's the reality. There were 14 independent headends in Delhi who had shown interest to operate but not one could launch. In Mumbai, it is the same story," says the head of a leading MSO on request of anonymity.

Making the ground tough is the fact that digitalisation is coming cheap in India. Cable operators are offering a subsidy of Rs 1000-1500 per STB while average revenue per user (ARPU) is set to fall with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) capping a la carte pay channels at Rs 5. The revenue share is also regulated with broadcasters taking away 45 per cent while 30 per cent stays with the MSOs and 25 per cent with the local cable operators.

"Digital cable is a game for those who have deep pockets. Cable operators will not only have to subsidise the boxes but the service as well," says WWIL managing director Jagjit Singh Kohli.

If Kolkata has not seen enough of bulldozing, it is because there is not much of demand for STBs. But Sristi has crumbled down with WWIL and Manthan sharing the spoils. Cablecom is tottering but has survived.

As STBs pick up in Kolkata, Incablenet and Hathway will look at entering the market. This will pave the way for further consolidation as penetration will mean financing more boxes. Manthan has already raised a debt of Rs 100 million from individuals and is looking at another Rs 200 million as way of bank financing.

The need for pumping in big money will be larger as Cas spreads. In the initial phase, Hathway is arranging for a Rs 1 billion debt while WWIL wants to pump in Rs 7.14 billion over two years with a plan also to acquire last mile of cable operators.

What can be disturbing is that after the initial euphoria, the demand for boxes seems to be already slowing when we have just crossed 400000 in a Cas market which has over 1.5 million cable and satellite homes. "If this trend is true, it should be a matter of concern for all the stakeholders except the local cable operators," says Zee Turner CEO Arun Poddar. In the Cas areas, local cable operators are allowed to pocket the entire Rs 77 they collect from subscribers for the free-to-air (FTA) channels.

With not as many boxes moving, broadcasters are particularly worried as they were forced to drop the rates of their pay channels. The sector regulator has chalked out a policy that makes business sense only on high volumes. "We will need higher volumes to make up for the pricing policy prescribed by Trai. Besides, the boxes are not yet entirely synchronised with the subscriber management system that would register what channels are subscribed by the consumers. The whole project will depend on how fast and effective SMS gets activised," says Poddar.

A surge in demand for the boxes is expected before the ICC World Cup starts in March. Besides, marketing campaigns will have to be launched promoting digitalisation. "MSOs will have to start marketing the boxes more aggressively. Broadcasters can also launch joint campaigns with them," says SET Discovery president Anuj Gandhi.

Nobody knows how the market will finally emerge. But the trend is clear: smaller MSOs in the Cas areas will find it difficult to subsidise the boxes and will need to take support of the bigger ones.

"Consolidation can start with Cas and spread out in other areas. In many non Cas places, we are also seeing consolidation because of fear of losing subscribers to direct-to-home operators," says the head of a MSO.

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