Regulators

'Cas is here to stay' : Nripendra Misra - Trai chairperson

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Nripendra Misra is a suave IAS officer with a reputation of being completely above board, and perhaps lacking the ‘guile‘ that puts many others in the topmost slots of the bureaucracy, fellow officials say of him in a positive sense. After the first initial setback for Conditional Access System in 2003, it was during Misra‘s tenure that Cas was enforced in parts of Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. And it was war… MSOs had to be readied, LCOs trained to shift to higher technology, broadcasters‘ resistance to be broken down by assuaging their fears and yet, the court order had to be implemented within the deadline: 31 December 2006.

It could not have been a pleasant task. Amidst all this, Misra and his dedicated but small team is going about handling one of the noisiest of industries in the country, issuing consultation papers, and ushering in new technologies.

Misra took his stand on various contentious issues during an interview with indiantelevision.com‘s Sujit Chakraborty.

Excerpts:

It has been nine months since Cas was implemented in parts of Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, after Chennai was brought under Cas. Towards the beginning there were uncertainties, and some people even opposed Cas. So today, what is your assessment of Cas? Is it a success or a failure in numerical terms?

Well, we never had a target in terms of penetration percentages. It was left to the subscriber who wanted to opt for choice, whether he wanted pay channels or FTAs and which are the ones he wanted. The latest numbers tell me that about six lakh (600,000) homes have opted for Cas in the mandated areas.

That is out of a universe of around 1.6 million cable homes…?

Yes, so that is about 30 per cent of subscribers. Then you have also a similar facility in DTH, which has also been accepted by many. In Kolkata particularly, the response has been poor because most of the popular channels are FTAs. So if the criterion is in terms of numbers, I think it has been a very satisfactory performance.

But it is not the number that is important. Unfortunately, we are always missing the true substance when attempting to evaluate Cas.

What is it we are trying to do? We are trying to set up a mode of digital transmission, which is more efficient and more accommodative. It is the global practice. Analogue is gradually getting out of the scene, and so we have to make a beginning. That was made into a kind of a pilot in these four areas.

Today you have a choice, you have DTH and you have Cas. Tomorrow you may have HITS… which is another option. You have voluntary Cas. So a beginning has been made, a seed has been sown, which must someday fructify in terms of an all India feature. Success has to be measured in terms of whether it is a trendsetter or not, and not in terms of how many people have opted for it or not.

So would you say that the target of becoming a trendsetter has been achieved?

Oh yes! It is perhaps a watershed in that in the broadcasting industry, digital transmission has begun.

But one main area that remains disturbing is the quality of service, which in many parts of the mandatory Cas zones remains highly dissatisfactory. Lots people are not getting the channels they have opted and paid for.

Firstly, I do not want to defend the quality of service, and there are problems of channels being discontinued. But it is not just at the level of local cable operator. I think somewhere down the line, the MSO also has to take his role seriously. Unlike in non-Cas areas, the role of the broadcaster and MSO in implementing Cas is far more important than that of the LCO. So, if these things have happened, they have happened because of the inadequacy of the functioning of MSOs.

When it started in January, we wanted to take a very liberal view. We did not want to enforce all the regulatory provisions in the first four or five months. They wanted time so that the consumer preference could be registered, and we gave them enough time. The subscriber register that has to be maintained was not complete to the extent we wanted. Therefore billing got delayed, payments also got delayed… subscribers have also not made payments. But we have made it clear that come 1st of July, we are not going to forgive anyone.

But how do you enforce this, as it has clearly not happened in many places till now?

There are three ways of how to enforce this. First is the awareness of the consumer. There is a quality of service regulation in the Cas area which is operational. Therefore the subscribers must reach to and judge the performance of the MSOs and cable operators. There are great details in the regulation about the kind of rebate that has to be given if the channels are not coming, or how much time it should take which kind of interruption, what should be the response time for the MSOs… these are all standardised and fixed.

Broadcasters have been cooperative in rolling out Cas, despite serious reservations about the Rs 5 channel price

But that brings us to a moot point…. The consumer is not truly aware and also does not seem to care about implementing his rights?

It takes time…

So you are saying that MSOs are primarily responsible for QoS, so where have they failed? Because there are lots of complaints about failure across the board.

The MSOs initially were perhaps not ready with the level of demand. That has settled down, STBs have been imported and they are in plenty today. The second stage was to get the reference of the subscribers. Now, I know and it is correct to say that the MSO representatives have gone to the homes four or five times, asking the subscribers to fill up the forms. But the gentleman says, you have come at the wrong time, that he will have to consult his family.

But gradually, that too has ceased to be a problem. Ninety percent of the subscriber registers have been completed and the choice is now there. Now the stage is where the subscribers must know what their right is. That is, the manual of practice of the MSOs must be made available to the subscribers. That manual of practice in most of the cases is not available. The contractual conveyance, that we have between us signed a contract, and this is our right, that message is still not being passed on, which is reflecting in the lack of awareness.

Broadcasters have been extremely cooperative in rolling out Cas, despite serious reservations about the RS 5 channel price, and all the Reference Interconnect Offers are in place.

So what have you told the MSOs about this?

We have conveyed to them that look, we shall view very seriously if there are defaults. We have written to the state governments, because they are the enforcement machinery.

So what is holding back the extension of Cas in the three metros?

The Central government wanted us to report back on this, we have sent that report, we have said it will take six to eight months‘ time to implement after notification of the extension. But then the state governments said that it is better to evaluate before extending Cas. We on our own without waiting for such instructions have engaged some outside agency to advice us on the level of implementation.

Has that audit been completed?

It will take another two months, we are expecting the reports by the end of October or beginning of November.

So it will further delay Cas extension by that much time?

Well this has nothing to do with Cas extension, this is something we are doing independently, and as far as the government goes, they can extend Cas, and we have just said that it would take six months from the day of notification to implement the extension. It is for the government to take a view when they wish to notify.

Resistance to Cas had been from the broadcasters, but even from the grassroots level, due to privileges of piracy and under declaration, there had been resistance from the cable operators as well, so have the realised that this is the business model of the future?

I think they have realised this more than anybody else. Today there is demand from many, many parts of India that they be given the permission for implementing voluntary Cas.
Like Ortel and Sristi in Orissa and West Bengal?

Ortel is one, then Pune is another, and there is demand from Bangalore, Mumbai and many other places. Some have in fact gone ahead with the implementation of voluntary Cas. So what the LCOs know very well is that the competition from DTH is very strong. The LCOs thus know that of they have to remain in the industry, two or three things are required.

First, investment is required, which is not come if the industry is so disorganised as it is today. Second, they know that there has to be some regulatory provisions to give stability, which will ensure certain amicable relations between them the broadcasters and the MSOs. So to answer your question as to why they are not implementing voluntary Cas, perhaps for that some regulatory initiative is required.

Now, for that the expert committee had been set up, and it has suggested that voluntary Cas be rolled out in 55 cities and towns. But they have also said that you have got to have a regulatory regime for at least one year. Even for voluntary Cas, certain things are important, like Standard Interconnection Offer, what should be the connectivity, what should be the revenue sharing formula. So these are the issues we are looking at, and we are going to put up the paper on voluntary Cas.

"Fixing of channel pricing in non-Cas is a challenge, but we shall come out with something that meets the expectations of both the high and low income groups"

When is that likely?

Oh any day, we are working on HITS and next is the paper on voluntary Cas.
The consultancy paper on HITS is already out?

Yes, but we have to now recommend the terms and conditions of licensing provisions to the ministry of Information & Broadcasting. Even the voluntary Cas paper is also in the pubic domain, and so we have to now concretise our views. And then specifics like what are the regulatory issues, what are the areas in which facilitation is required… perhaps some technical training is required, and the go ahead.
But voluntary Cas would mean that channel prices will be dictated by the broadcasters and subscribers may suffer?

Let‘s see. Voluntary Cas does not mean it cannot be regulated, and as such I do not have any views on the subject now.
It follows that even in voluntary Cas you could regulate prices?

If it requires so in the case of DTH I can regulate prices. In fact, there has been some judicial expectations on this, when TDSAT in one of its judgments asked that if channel price is regulated in Cas, why it is not there in DTH? We had our reasons, it is an infant industry, we wanted DTH to grow.
But then Cas is also an infant system?

The difference is that DTH is a new initiative, and I am of the view that there should be minimal regulation. Cas was a shift from the old cable industry.
The cable industry has been insisting on a level playing field and they are pointing out to the IPTV and DTH consultation papers as proof that Trai is not creating that level playing field. And in Trai‘s own meetings on Cas in Kolkata and other places, LCOs and MSOs have accuse Trai of siding with broadcasters?

There was never such an accusation. You may have been told so, but never, never has a single cable operator said that Trai is favouring broadcasters. It is all a matter of which platform you are utilising. You fix the price at RS 5, and someone will say, it is against broadcasters. If you do not do that, they will say you are favouring the broadcasters. There is a bogey being raised that in many of the countries channel prices are fixed. The truth of the matter is channel prices have not been fixed in a majority of the countries. And majority means, more than 90 per cent of the countries.
So there, prices have panned out according to market pull and push?

Of course.
So how much time do you think we will need for market forces to create prices that are compatible with the pockets of the average consumer, who are the vast majority, that is, when would deregulation start and prices shape up as per market forces?

It is already there, because in non-Cas it is already there according to the market forces. I haven‘t regulated prices there. The prices have been fixed by the cable operators and the subscribers. In 2004 when there was such a noise, there was an order on freezing the prices. You know that order was an interim measure. The ideal situation, which is there in our consultation paper, is it should go to forbearance. And I think that the day is not very far. The moment there is healthy competition and prices should be put on forbearance.

There is the issue of price freeze versus price cap?

That I won‘t answer because we have not issued the regulation on that so far.

It is important for the cable industry to grow and I am not a great votary for centralised economic activity, or vertical integration, so franchise should be the mode.

Is it in the offing?

Yes, the next thing for the non-Cas areas.
In recent meetings the ministry of broadcasting has said that content control in IPTV is not in their domain because that platform is under the ministry of telecom. Despite that Trai has said that it is I&B which should control content in IPTV, so do you think you have usurped some of the government‘s prerogatives?

No, not all. It is a viewpoint. I can‘t say anything on content regulation, who will or who will not do. It is not within my powers. It is simply this, that we are of the view that the control of all content of all broadcasting and on all technological platform is best done by the broadcasting ministry. It is just a view point.
So what are the forthcoming issues in the cable or rather the video-related industry?

Well after introducing digitisation in non-Cas, there will be the issue of pricing. Then the other issue will be also of the structure of the cable operators. Can we contribute to their organisational strength? This comes from the understanding that there is the issue of investment, because we know there is an opportunity.
But that investment with such small players would not be possible, so what does one do to ensure investment?

In some manner it has to be there. Whether in the franchise mode, or through takeovers, or vertical integration. But I think that in countries such as India, perhaps there will be a role for everybody. I am not a great votary for a centralised form of economic activity. So it is better that we perhaps have a relationship in which franchise is the mode and there is mutually shared revenue principles.

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