Television

LMOs And The CAS Conundrum

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Nothing can get more complex than this. It is not only the pay-TV broadcasters and the government who are wanting to take time out for implementation of conditional access system (CAS). Opposition is coming from within the value chain of the cable TV industry itself with the distributors and the last mile operators (LMOs) expressing concern over CAS.

"CAS is not good for consumers, distributors and last mile operators. It will lead to too much of confusion in the market. Besides, broadcasters are not providing a la carte rates," says Cable Operators and Distributors Association (Coda) vice president Ravi Singh.

Clearly, the mood among the cable operators is not to rush with CAS. They would rather wait to see if direct-to-home (DTH) picks up once Tata Sky launches its service later in the year. Their fear of CAS is grounded in the fact that they will lose control of their subscribers to the multi-system operators (MSOs). And in the transparent system of digital cable, they will have to open up the unreported subscribers to the MSOs.

Cable operators' fear of CAS is grounded in the fact that they will lose control of their subscribers to the multi-system operators

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To counter this "two-way defeat," the distributors and last mile operators are willing to vote CAS out. So how do they plan to compete with DTH? By dropping prices of analogue cable while throwing the offer open for digital service without CAS.

Quite a miserable situation to be in if you are a MSO as you will be hurt both ways. In the scenario of a price drop, the MSOs will have to absorb the slippage. And in case of digital cable without CAS, they will have to invest while facing the uphill task of luring subscribers away from analogue. Particularly in a market that has grown a spoilt breed of over 52 million (NRS says its 61 million) cable TV consumers who are used to a large menu of channels on a comparatively low monthly subscription fee.

The LMOs, in fact, have an open-ended strategy. If DTH starts pocketing cable TV subscribers, the gameplan is up for change. They will bend and cooperate with the MSOs, becoming a part of an organised distribution system with margins well-defined and structured.

Yes, broadcasters have been dilly-dallying on CAS. But MSOs have not made it any easier for them with such statements as "the true value of pay channels has come to the surface in Chennai where consumers have thrown them out."

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But wait. Having enjoyed the spoils of a long grown unorganised industry, the distributors and LMOs do not want to let go so soon. Coda, an association of cable operators and distributors in Mumbai, is even talking of setting up a digital headend in a CAS regime. This is nothing new. In 2003, when the CAS topic was hot, Coda made similar rumblings that threatened but sounded empty. But this time, there is a significant change. There are around 50 distributors in Mumbai and they have invested in fibre. What this means is that they are connected by fibre with each other, except in small patches where work is going on, and have the infrastructure to put up a digital network.

"We will jointly invest in a headend and run it as partners," says Coda president Ganesh Naidu.

Talk is easier than action. Investments on setting up a digital infrastructure is not all; a sizeable chunk of money needs to be set aside for subsidising set-top boxes (STBs). Then there is the issue of professionalising customer care services like a call centre and technical team for maintenance. Besides, negotiations with broadcasters can be a tedious process. And who can forget management issues between as wide a body as the distributors and the LMOs?

Behind the garb of an entrepreneurial spirit may lie the hidden agenda of bargaining for a "pound of flesh." The distributors, who feel insecure of their role in a CAS system, want to ensure that their place is protected as a bridge between the MSOs and the LMOs. They, along with the MSOs, have been asking for more, as share in terms of commission from conversions into digital consumers.

The MSOs can take the blame for not ironing out differences with their distributors and LMOs. Even as the time frame for implementation of CAS is set for delay, there is no effort to fix the margins. The argument on offer: such margins can be settled only after the broadcasters come out with their proposals.

Yes, broadcasters have been dilly-dallying on CAS. But MSOs have not made it any easier for them with such statements as "the true value of pay channels has come to the surface in Chennai where consumers have thrown them out." Perhaps, MSOs went overboard thinking that this would win them support from the consumers and, hence, the government as it would imply cheaper cable subscription fees. The sad fate of CAS is that consumers didn't quite agree with this.

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