TDSAT regrets TV distributors interconnect pacts without any written document

NEW DELHI: Noting that a large number of cases keep coming up before it suffer from the ‘malaise of distributors of TV channels entering into interconnect arrangements without any agreement in writing (or at any rate a definitive agreement) as mandated by law’. The Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal has observed that ‘oral arrangements may appear expedient and profitable but with the passage of time, the relationship becomes both strained and hurtful.’

Disposing off three petitions involving 375 local cable operators, one by the Karnataka State Digital Cable TV Operators Welfare Association against Siti Cable Networks and the other by Cable Operators Sangram Association, Kolkata against Hathway Cable and Datacom, chairman justice Aftab Alam and member B B Srivastava said a large percentage of cases coming to the tribunal from the broadcasting sector have their root cause in the absence of any agreement in writing between the parties. “What is more  regrettable” is the fact that the cases in which two distributors of TV signals happen to be in interconnect arrangement without any agreement in writing is not confined only to analogue transmission but arise almost in equal numbers under the Digital Addressable System regime.

In the two Kolkata cases, all the 102 LCOs and Hathway are directed to execute either the Model Interconnection Agreement based on mutual negotiations or failing this, the Standard Interconnection Agreement within 30 days as there is no interconnect agreement between the two sides.

TRAI made it clear that in case no interconnection agreement in writing comes into existence between the LCOs and The MSOs, Siti Cable in the Karnataka case and Hathway (in the Kolkata case) will be obliged to discontinue the supply of signals to the LCOs for any supply of signals beyond that period would be illegal and in contravention of the statutory prohibition.

In case any of the LCO wishes to shift away from its present MSO, it must give 21 days' notice to the MSO before migrating to any other distributor of signals.

As regards the past relationship, in case of any dues that the two MSOs (Siti Cable in Karnataka and Hathway in Kolkata) might claim on the basis of any written agreement or on the basis of any interim order passed by the tribunal in these proceedings, it would be open to them to initiate recovery proceedings against the concerned LCO in accordance with law.

“Needless to say, no monetary claim for supply of signals may be entertained that is not based on any written agreement.”

The Tribunal said it was “glad to note that the regulator has moved in and amended the regulations to plug in even the little loop-hole that was misused for continuing the supply of signals under DAS transmission even after the expiry of the agreement. Further, by another amendment in the Regulations it has removed the ambivalence that was created in the scheme of interconnections as result of fixing the shares of the MSO and the LCO by the Tariff Order dated 10 July 2010 as amended on 30 April 2012.”

The two amendments in the Interconnect Regulations 2012 made by TRAI during the pendency of these petitions leave nothing for adjudication in these matters and all that is required is to direct the parties to simply follow the law.

In the Karnataka LCO petition, the Tribunal said all the 269 LCOs will be free either to continue with the existing agreements or to switch over to either the Model Interconnection Agreement or the Standard Interconnection Agreement within 30 days.  Each of the LCOs should intimate Siti Cable whether or not it wishes to continue with the existing agreement. Those exercising the option not to continue with the existing agreement may further negotiate with Siti Cable for execution of the Model Interconnection Agreement failing which both sides must execute the Standard Interconnection Agreement within 30 days from today.

The LCOs operate in Bengaluru which came under DAS transmission in Phase-11. All the LCOs represented through this petition are receiving their signals from the Siti Cable.  The petition was filed on 24 August 2015 challenging the disconnection notices issued by the MSO under clauses 6.2 and 6.5 of the Telecommunication (Broadcasting and Cable Services) Interconnection (Digital Addressable Cable    Television Systems) Regulations2012 issued on grounds of non-payment of the monthly subscription dues. Mutual negotiations before the Mediation Centre failed.

On 15 December 2015, it was stated on behalf of the MSO that as  on 31 October 2015, the cumulative dues against the 269 LCOs amounted to Rs l.65 crore for the a Ia carte channels and for the channels that are given to the LCOs in bouquets, approximately Rs 25 lakh calculated @ Rs.60 per STB. It was also stated on behalf of the MSO that under the agreement with certain broadcasters, it was getting the broadcasters' channels on the latter's RIO rates and it was no longer possible for it to give those channels in any packages and any LCO wanting those channels could take them on RIO rates.

The Kolkata petitions were filed by the Association on behalf of 42 LCOs and later on behalf of another 60LCOs. All these LCOs operate in Kolkata and receive TV signals from Hathway. Most of the LCOs are operating in areas that came under DAS transmission in phase-II and a few are operating in areas that come under DAS transmission in phase-III. In these two cases, the LCOs sought a direction to the MSO to restore supply  of  signals  to  some  of  the  STBs  that,  they  alleged,  were  disconnected arbitrarily and not to interfere with the smooth and good quality supply of signals to the LCOs.

According to the petitioner, as per the understanding between the two sides, they were liable to pay Rs 110 per STB as monthly subscription fee for all the channels being received by them and regardless of the subscription fee charged by them from the individual subscribers but the MSO had raised the subscription fee and was trying to enforce package   billing that would further greatly increase the   monthly subscription fee.  Though the parties are in interconnect arrangement for a long time, there is no interconnect agreements.

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