SC declines to crush TDSAT order that HITS players be treated at par with pan-India MSOs

NEW DELHI: In an order that will not only have far-reaching consequences for broadcasters but may encourage others to take the headend-in-the-sky (HITS) route, the Supreme Court today rejected the challenge to the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) view that HITS players should be treated at the same level as pan-India multi-system operators (MSOs). 

The Tribunal had on 7 December last mandated that the reference interconnect order would be the starting point for negotiations between them and the distribution platforms. 

The apex court decided the matter after hearing both sides on the issues raised.

The appeal had been filed by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), Star India and Taj TV after a similar appeal had earlier on 22 Januarybeen dismissed in the Delhi High Court as not maintainable on the ground that the broadcaster had an alternative remedy of appealing in the Supreme Court.

The Tribunal had said, "It is difficult to see a HITS operator as different from a pan-India MSO and in our considered view a HITS operator, in regard to the commercial terms for an interconnect arrangement has to be taken at par with a pan-India MSO and must, therefore, receive the same treatment." 

The broadcasters had contended that the Tribunal through its order dated 7 December had completely taken away the freedom of contract. They also contended that the Tribunal had crossed its jurisdiction by passing an order on the TRAI regulation.

The High Court had said that it did not feel the need to examine whether TDSAT had the jurisdiction to direct broadcasters to treat the HITS operator Noida Software Technology Park Ltd (NSTPL) at the same level as pan-India MSOs.

That Court had heard arguments presented by Star India and NSTPL, whose petition had been accepted on 7 December by the Tribunal, which had asked Star India and Taj TV to execute fresh agreements with NSTPL. However, TDSAT had kept the operation of the judgment pending till 31 March this year.

It had said that on past occasions as well similar suggestions were made with the hope of nudging the TRAI to take proactive steps to reduce the scope of disputes arising out of the regulations. “At the same time, the fact that regulatory intervention may be the ideal way forward cannot and should not be an excuse for this Tribunal to shirk the interpretative issues that have come before us. This is particularly so when there appears to be regulatory inertia,” TDSAT had said.

The Tribunal had, on 18 December, impleaded Zee Turner and others in another petition by Star India against NSTPL and asked the broadcasters to produce the agreements between the broadcasters and major MSOs. It opined that some agreements have to be suspended by Star and Taj TV. 

Though the TDSAT petition had been filed by NSTPL, it will also help Hinduja Group’s HITS platform NXT Digital, which entered into the fray last year. 

TDSAT had directed Star and Taj, as well as the other broadcasters who had joined the proceedings as intervenors, to issue fresh RIOs in compliance with the Interconnect Regulations, as explained in the judgment within one month from the date this order becomes operational and effective. It will be then open to NSTPL to execute fresh interconnect agreements with Star and Taj, and with any other broadcasters on the basis of their respective RIOs or on negotiated terms within the limits.

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