Cable TV

Hesitant government officials responsible for CAS confusion - cable operators

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In all the confabulations around CAS, one assumption that has generally made is that broadly speaking the cable fraternity stands as one. Indiantelevision.com met a group of cable operators, in Mumbai and point stands out. The "last link" in the cable chain has an axe to grind not only with the broadcaster and the government vis-a-vis CAS and other issues, but the big multi-system operators as well.

The operators have expressed disappointment over the recent comments of I&B secretary Pawan Chopra that indicate that the government might soften its stand on the conditional access system (CAS) deadline of 14 July 2003. The cable operators also expressed apprehensions that hesitant government officials who have lacked the will to discipline broadcasters and multi-system operators (MSOs) are responsible for the confusion.

indiantelevision.com spoke to three Mumbai based cable trade constituents (one of them is also a member of the Shiv Sena, a political party that support the BJP-led NDA government) and obtained their viewpoints on the currently ever-more confusing scenario:

Shiv Sena Vibhag Pramukh and party spokesperson on the issue of the implementation of conditional access system (CAS) in Mumbai Anil Parab:

Parab is the proprietor of Dattatray Cable in addition to being a Shiv Sena party member handling the parliamentary constituency (Bandra to Jogeshwari). Parab says that the Shiv Sena is not against CAS but feels that the government and bureaucrats are responsible for the current confusion. When questioned as to why the Shiv Sena entered the fray so late; he says that the party officials didn‘t have access to all aspects or CAS related issues due to the workings of the government machinery.

* As Shiv Sena Pramukh Balasaheb Thackeray had earlier mentioned to information and broadcasting minister RS Prasad, our main reservations relate to the hasty way in which CAS is being implemented. We want CAS to be consumer friendly and the government must ensure that the cable operator‘s rights are protected. After all, the cable operator is the driving force responsible for the success of the cable business in India.

* Cable operators must continue to handle the operations they hitherto handled - billings, collections, maintenance amongst others - post CAS. This control cannot shift to the MSOs.

* Somehow, we feel that the government and the bureaucrats have given the wrong impression to consumers. Through their communication, they have given an impression that CAS would ensure that consumers would have to pay less than what they are currently paying. The government should have specified that consumers should be open to paying amounts more than Rs 300 in an open market scenario.

* Less than a fortnight away from the CAS deadline, there is no clarity about the distribution margins that multi-system operators (MSOs) will offer cable operators. Broadcasters are equally responsible for the uncertainty as they have not yet revealed the pricing of individual channels. The government should have forced the broadcasters to reveal the individual prices by the deadline of mid-June. If necessary, the government should have gone back to Parliament to amend the notification that "cable operators have to declare the prices of pay channels to the consumers." After all, the NDA government has a majority and can get the appropriate sanctions.

* Why has the government realised so late that the ground reality indicates that the MSOs and cable operators are not yet ready even as the deadline is fast approaching? Some of the MSOs haven‘t even got the headends in place; sufficient number of boxes are not available.

* The government has notified that a fixed rate of Rs 72 will be payable to cable operators for showing the free to air channels (FTA) but hasn‘t passed a law to declare MRPs (maximum retail price) within which pay broadcasters can operate and charge.

* Nearly 30-40 per cent of Mumbai residents live in slums and own black and white television sets. They cannot afford to pay the high rates that broadcasters would continue to charge post-CAS.

* Broadcasters who say that their "content" is powerful should realise that the cable operators are responsible for improving the brand equity of the so called "popular entertainment channels". The broadcasters should treat the cable operators with due respect.

* The government‘s intention is not very clear or firm and this has affected the smooth roll out.

Sonali Cable proprietor Suvarna G Amonkar:

Amonkar, a distributor of WIN Cable with nearly 200 affiliated cable operators, is an ardent supporter of CAS. He is in a spot as the cable operators have several questions and he doesn‘t have answers - because neither the broadcasters nor MSOs have taken him into confidence as yet.

* If the broadcasters are in favour of CAS, why haven‘t they announced the individual rates for pay channels as yet? How can we approach the consumers when we don‘t know what the rates are? How can the broadcasters expect us to announce the rates - what if the broadcasters decide to change the rates or make certain pay channels free to air at the last moment.

* The MSOs must finalise agreements with the cable operators (last mile operators) and clearly indicate the commissions that will be given to the LMOs. The MSOs should get 50 per cent of the revenues and the cable operators should get 50 per cent of the MSO share (25 per cent of total revenues).

* How can government bureaucrats inform us a fortnight before the CAS deadline that they had not been briefed about our viewpoints/concerns?

* The government must give assurances to the LMOs that their interests - areas of operations, responsibilities, investments in infrastructure and control rooms - will be safeguarded even post CAS. Perhaps, the government could give a licence to those cable operators who have operated in a particular area for years.

* The government must also direct the broadcasters to share signals with groups of cable operators who choose to align themselves under a separate entity - different from the major MSOs who rule the roost at present.

* Existing LMOs or cable operators who have operated in a particular area for years will not surrender their areas to MSOs‘ dummy operators or new cable operators (irrespective of the fact that these new cable operators might bring in better infrastructure or service standards).

* The cable operators have played a significant role in ensuring the popularity of channels such as Star Plus or Ten Sports. The sales and distribution teams of several pay channels used to come to us and make a plea that we should place their channels in the prime band. We have played a role in ensuring that the MSO promoted cable channels such as CCC in Mumbai became popular.

* The current FTA pricing fixed by the government is insufficient since the cost of maintenance of a cable network have gone up substantially and Rs 72 as basic cable fee per subscriber will be inadequate for the cable operator. Hence, we feel that the government must consider increasing the FTA charges set by them to an amount higher than Rs 72 per month.

* The cable fraternity has bestowed full support to CAS which will bring in transparency and organisation to the entire industry and also will benefit subscribers.

* The cable fraternity does not intend to under declare its

FTA or Pay connectivity to the MSO or to any government body.

* BJP member of parliament Kirit Somaiya is responsible for spreading wrong information amongst Mumbai‘s residents. We have provided proof to the court that he has been making contradictory statements about the interim High Court order issued in March; misguiding consumers by means of an incorrect advertising campaign; declaring that consumers shouldn‘t pay more than Rs 150 per month; urging consumers to avoid buying set top boxes so that broadcasters are forced to convert pay channel into free to air; while at the same time proclaiming that he is responsible for the implementation of CAS.

Mumbai Cable Operators Federation (MCOF) president Nandan Basu

Basu stirred a hornet‘s nest when his organization raised its voice against MSOs and backed it up by filing a petition in the Mumbai High Court. Basu has been drawn into several controversies and has been at the receiving end of MSOs, broadcasters and rival cable operator associations. The Mumbai High Court has restrained Basu‘s MCOF from disconnecting cable connections of those consumers who pay 10 per cent more than that of the cable rates applicable as of 31 December 2002.

* The government has applied force on the cable operators but has not pressurised the broadcaster. The broadcasters must be forced to declare their MRPs immediately and the government must put a cap on the pay channel rates.

* Due to the misguided publicity campaign of politicians such as BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, consumers are refusing to pay monthly charges. We haven‘t collected our dues from consumers since the last few months. The cable operators have been unable to pay MSOs who in turn haven‘t paid the broadcasters.

* The recent comments of bureaucrats indicating that the government might go "soft" on CAS are uncalled for. There cannot be a soft CAS - there can be full implementation or no implementation at all.

* If the government is not rigid about the 14 July deadline, then the High Court interim ruling that cable operators can charge 10 per cent more on the cable rates applicable as of 31 December 2002 will get extended beyond 14 July 2003. Also consumers will refuse to pay the applicable rates and continue to either pay nothing or pay Rs 150. After 14 July 2003, the consumer might go a police station and register a complaint against cable operators using some weird premises or flimsy excuses.

* It is sad that Mumbai‘s cable operators didn‘t get representation in the CAS task force at an appropriate time so that the government officials could have got a better understanding of the ground realities.

* The MSOs haven‘t taken the LMOs into confidence about various issues such as pricing of individual pay channels; commissions for the free to air and pay channels; maintenance costs; division of responsibilities between the LMOs and the MSOs.

* It is really sad that the fate of CAS rests on officials of the government machinery who have very little understanding of ground realities. I feel that the High Court judges should have devoted more time to get a better grasp of the various issues.

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