Telecom regulatory authority of India, TRAI, is planning to introduce portability to DTH set top boxes, DNA reports. If its suggestion goes through, competition will heighten amongst players as consumers will be free to switch between providers without needing to buy or install a new set top box.  However, there are many questions that arise from such a decision. For one, if interoperability is enforced, who will have to pay for the change in the set top boxes (STB) – The consumer or the DTH players? And if a standard for STBs is defined, who will benefit?

Will Portability Cost Consumers?

Last year, the suggestion to make STBs interoperable was vehemently opposed by Dish TV, reported Business Standard. Dish TV and Tata Sky offer set top boxes with MPEG2 video compression while Airtel’s Digital TV and Reliance’s Big TV offer MPEG4, a more advanced technology. So either Dish & Tata Sky will have to upgrade their STBs or Airtel and Reliance will have to make theirs backwards compatible. If any of the operators will have to phase in new STBs, will subscribers be forced to pay more?

If the logic that applies to mobile will be used in case of DTH – it wont work. The connection may be transferrable, but in DTH, portability is about the set top box.

Reliance’s Dilemma

New entrant Reliance had claimed in a comment to a consultation paper by TRAI that losses due to non-recovered STBs and refurbishment costs were burdening it. If it does not have a comprehensive network to recover STBs and costs, this step by TRAI will put it under more pressure.

Bring In Independent Vendors?

The issue last year was that which pair would have to ensure compatibility and which technology – MPEG2 or MPEG4 – was the standard. Now, technology has provided an answer with STBs that can play MPEG2, MPEG4 as well as other digital video formats. So all the players can phase out their STBs and bring in the new ones, if the Bureau of Indian Standards can conclude its work on making them the standard. But it has not yet done so.

If it does, it could pave the entry for independent vendors of STBs. Bharti had noted that the DTH sector could replicate what happened in the telecom sector – just as handset manufacturers and cellular operators are independent entities, third party STB manufacturers could be allowed into the sector. Currently, the high refundable deposit is a barrier to entry for most consumers. If STB manufacturers are allowed to launch devices, then competition will ensure price reduction.

Fix STB Price

TRAI had recently asked DTH players if they would okay fixing a price for set top boxes in order to grow the market. Industry stakeholders denied the need for fixing MRPs of set top boxes, saying it would deprive DTH operators of flexibility and would not be in the interest of consumers as the STBs were being offered with huge subsidies. Considering that interoperability is now being introduced and there will be no lock-in, will it make more sense to set a fixed price now?

Cable TV Tariffs To Be Fixed

TRAI is seeking public opinion on fixing cable TV rates. A questionnaire will be issued on whether wholesale and retail prices of TV channels should be fixed and what ceiling is to be prescribed. Customer affordability is the main theme of the questionnaire that will be put up on TRAI’s website. The schedule for meetings with DTH, IPTV providers, consumer advocacy groups, broadcasters and MSOs is here (PDF).

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