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The DTH industry?s big developments in 2014

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MUMBAI: 2014 was the year of mixed fortunes for the direct to home television industry in India. The seven players in the industry continued to burn cash as customer acquisition costs continued to stay at high levels, at least one of the players spent a large part of the year looking for a white knight, all the players pushed ahead with their HD offerings in phase I, and II digitisation areas, leading to attractive rises in average revenues per user. The total number of registered subscribers and active subscribers, for all the six DTH players, as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report, as on 30 June 2014 was 67.57 million and 38.24 million respectively. Close to 43.41 per cent of DTH subscribers were inactive till June 2014.

At least two of the players have started generating positive cash flows during the year, even as new spectacular announcements of preparing launches of Ultra HD or 4K services were made during the year. Fresh debt and equity infusions, efforts to introduce new subscriber packages, and an announcement of new policy directions for licensing DTH by TRAI were the hallmark of the year.

The DTH industry in the country saw some big innovative changes being made over the year 2014. These helped the industry in adding more subscribers while marginally increasing the average revenue per user (ARPU).

The year began with three DTH operators, Tata Sky, Sun Direct and Reliance Digital TV being issued notices by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) for not showing the mandatory 24 Doordarshan channels. Later on the Ministry also pulled the entire DTH industry for not paying licence fee worth Rs 2066 crore.

The DTH ops resisted the amount stating that they had been paying the fees on the gross revenue (GR) basis while the government was extracting it on the adjusted gross revenue (AGR). A court case on the same had been pending from nearly four years and is still ongoing. However, Tata Sky and Reliance decided to challenge the same in the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) while Sun Direct made an application on its 2009 petition regarding AGR.

The licence fee case was put in the backburner by the TDSAT stating that since it is relative to the telecom case on licence fee issue, it would hear that case first and then come to the DTH case. By the end of the year, however, the TDSAT agreed to hear the DTH ops separately rather than wait in line, the case is still on. Tata Sky in the meanwhile has already paid a sum of Rs 383 crore to the I&B Ministry, while Dish TV awaits court orders.

The budget 2014 got some relief to the set top box (STB) manufacturers by reducing the excise duty from 12 per cent to 10 per cent from February to June 2014. However, they continued to fight the entertainment and service tax that was being levied on them since several years while cable operators go without paying it. Dish TV raised the issue with the finance minister Arun Jaitley and then I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar to discuss the multi layered taxes, which however didn?t lead to any conclusive solution on the same. DTH ops are subjected to licence fee, 12. 3 per cent service tax and also entertainment tax at the state level.

The DTH Operators Association also saw a change of head with Dish TV CEO RC Venkateish replacing Tata Sky MD and CEO Harit Nagpal. Doordarshan ADG Ranjan Thakur who also headed Freedish moved out due to the expiry of his term.

Freedish has been working on adding several Indian as well as international channels through its auctions while also setting up MPEG-4 boxes alongside MPEG-2 for the interior parts of the country.

Several new innovations came across last year. Tata Sky introduced a new feature of Karaoke on TV while Videocon d2h came out with a headphone attached to the remote for watching TV without disturbing others. Both of them also were the first ones to introduce 4K HD TV set top boxes in the country. However, the official commercial rollout for both has yet to happen. Tata Sky even did a live telecast of one of the FIFA world cup matches on its 4K TV as a demo.

Dish TV on the other hand, chose to go local, by introducing customised packs for regional India. A sub-brand ?Zing? was launched that would give localised packages in the states of West Bengal, Odisha, Tripura, Seemandhra, Telangana and Maharashtra. The oldest DTH operator also heaved a sigh of relief when after months, it received the nod from the Sri Lanka government to commence operations for its DTH project in the neighbouring country.

With markets being more receptive, Videocon d2h, which has been planning on launching its IPO since long, went ahead with its filing to SEBI for Rs 700 crore with seven banks managing the share sale. Much of what it can raise will go towards acquiring STBs and outdoor units. Dish TV is also contemplating on starting its own manufacturing unit, though it hasn?t laid any concrete plans on it yet.

TRAI played a big role when it came out with its DTH licencing recommendation paper which is now pending before the I&B Ministry. The paper restricted broadcasters from owning more than one DPO which is likely to affect Dish TV/Siti Cable under Zee and Sumangli Cable/Sun Direct under Sun Network.

The paper however extended the 10 year licence period to 20 years while the one time entry has been retained at Rs 10 crore. DTH operators whose licence term expires after 10 years will be allowed to apply for a 10 year extension. The licence fee has been reduced from 10 per cent of GR to 8 per cent of AGR.

The earlier norm of providing a bank guarantee (BG) of Rs 40 crore was change to the amount payable as a licence fee for two quarters and will have to be renewed year on year till the end of the licence period. New entrants will however have to provide a BG of Rs 5 crore for two quarters and then progress as above.

The year ended with the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India coming out with a scathing report on the management of satellite capacity for DTH service by the Department of Space (DoS). In it, it stated that over the years the DoS has been lagging in its satellite launches that were required by DTH operators, leading to them migrating to foreign operators and loss of revenue to the government. The DoS had also goofed up on charging Sun Direct and Prasar Bharati leading to a loss. On the other hand, its commitment to Tata Sky for first right of refusal for using its Ku band transponders, led to its transponder space remaining idle for years.

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