Regulators

Prasar Bharati, Dish TV, Star, Zee and BES bat for KU-band open-sky policy

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NEW DELHI: A number of stakeholders in the Indian broadcast and satellite industry, including the country’s first DTH service provider Dish TV, Star India, Zee, the pubcaster Prasar Bharati, and industry organisations such as Broadband India Forum and CASBAA are batting for an open-sky policy relating to KU-band transponders.

The reason for this support for an open-sky satellite policy is rooted in the need for increasing KU-band transponder capacity. The allotment of KU-band transponder on foreign satellites is regulated by the country’s space agency Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) when it is unable to provide space on Indian satellites to domestic customers.

While Dish TV does not see “any justification” in the closed-door or regulated policy regime followed for KU-band transponder capacity, Star India is of the opinion that absence of such a policy is limiting DTH platforms’ capacity to provide additional services. Though Prasar Bharati, managers of Doordarshan and All-India Radio, gets preference on Indian satellites, it has also supported an open policy.

“At present, KU-band is permitted for HITS, DTH, uplinks and DSNGs/VSATs. These applications should be enabled for open-sky policy, which will allow the broadcasters/DTH operators to negotiate long-term contracts. As satellite life is 15-17 years, operators give benefit in long-term contracts to the extent of 50 per cent,” Dish TV has said, adding that, at present, ISRO executes only three-year contracts.

According to Star India (its parent 21 Century Fox has a minority in DTH operator Tata Sky), “With the introduction of new satellite TV channels, DTH operators require more KU-band capacity with footprint over India to enable to uplink all such channels on such DTH platforms… (but), owing to the lack of open-sky policy in KU-band, DTH platforms are restricted to provide limited value-added services. The open-sky policy for DTH will unlock such value-added services and enable viewers to consume such immersive and interactive content.”

Why is this clamour for an open-sky policy regarding KU-band transponder?

At present, any request for additional KU-band capacity on foreign satellites to expand business by Indian customers is hampered as they are unable to negotiate directly, and have to go through ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix that acts as a gate-keeper and, after a deal is concluded with a foreign satellite for KU-band transponders, also charges a commission.

This happens when ISRO is unable to provide space on Indian satellites, which are increasing in number but have failed to keep pace with the demands of the domestic companies. Incidentally, there is no restriction on leasing C-band transponder capacity on a foreign satellite.

“For DTH services, acquisition of KU-band transponder capacity is highly regulated and is done through an intermediary (Antrix that is a government organisation). As a result, there has been considerable delay in acquiring KU-band transponders…and also due to non-availability of adequate transponders, DTH service-providers are unable to chalk out their business plans. This is necessitated as the current procedures are fraught with restrictive practices,” said Broadband Forum India, an industry organisation comprising member-companies providing services via satellites.

Hong Kong-based Asian industry body CASBAA, pointing that it has been seeking a “less restrictive policy” for KU-band for over a decade, has said a PwC-researched paper for it mid-2016 concluded that the policy for KU-band was “in effect a very restrictive satellite policy as presently operated in India,” which “artificially suppress(es) demand, which in turn leads directly to a reduction in growth, profits, and therefore lower tax revenues.”

Though the bogey of national security is often raised when liberalisation of satellite policies are talked about, CASBAA, while discounting such fears, suggested following medium-term policy tweaks to ease KU-band capacity crunch, which were also listed out by some other stakeholders too:

i) ISRO/Antrix can regularly publish a list of pre-cleared satellites and operators who are permitted to supply transponders to the Indian market. Indian DTH operators should be free to negotiate and contract capacities directly from them.

ii) An efficient procedure can be established for DTH operators to obtain security clearance from ISRO before contracting the transponder capacity directly from foreign satellites.

iii) Contracting for incremental capacity or extending the contracts of existing suppliers can and should be completely left for DTH operators without any need to seek additional, duplicative approvals from ISRO/Antrix. DTH operators would need to keep the ISRO updated with the contracted capacities and contract durations.

The issue of freeing up KU-band transponder lease regime has been discussed for years, but its gaining momentum as the present PM Modi-led government in New Delhi has been talking about furthering economic liberalization and easing norms for doing business in India.

Broadcast Engineering Society (BES), a government organisation, too is in favour of  an open-sky policy. “Keeping in view the growing number of TV channels and their carriage on various platforms, it has become inevitable for the government to go for an open-sky policy for KU-band,” BES stated, adding technological advancement and growth of HD channels, apart from experimental 4K services, has necessitated this.

The stakeholders were expressing their views on KU-band satellite capacity vis-à-vis an open-sky policy as part of a consultation process initiated by sector regulator TRAI on ease of doing broadcast business in India. Incidentally the regulator has been recommending in vain an open-sky policy for several years now.

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