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Move Over, Analogue: Digital Cable TV The Norm Soon Says I&B Minister Soni

ambika-soniBy the end of the year, the Indian cabinet is likely to approve of a Headend In The Sky (HITS) which will allow Cable TV operators to downlink more signals from the satellite and distribute them through their networks more effectively. The Information and Broadcasting minister Ambika Soni announced this and other critical changes to the Indian television and distribution arena in an interactive session on government regulation of electronic and print media organised by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, reports Samay Live.

Soni said that analogue cable TV operators must convert their network entirely to digital, calling for a “sunset hour” for complete digitisation but did not offer a deadline. Whereas in 2007, as some may remember, the secretary for I&B then, Asha Swarup, announced (via ContentSutra) that there would be no such fixed date and that national digitization had to be voluntary. A look at some of the issues Soni has to look into:

Technology Investment, Churn, Upgrade Or Die

The arrival of HITS would mean cable networks would be able to carry more channels (compared to the 60-100 currently offered) to homes across the country. How it would work is that the cable operators invest in equipment that downlinks the signals to their centres, and then transmit them to homes where the signals will be received by a set top box, again an investment that the operator needs to incur; the subscriber has to pay around Rs. 600-1000. This is similar to the price of the set top box offered by DTH operators today, so massive churn towards DTH can be expected.

Already threatened by the rising DTH industry, now 15.17 million connections strong (as of September 2009), cable TV operators are now faced with an “upgrade or die” scenario. Meanwhile, DTH is sitting on its own technology issues and the government has yet to take a stand on MPEG2 or MPEG4 video.

Conditional Access Systems (CAS) operators currently offering analog cable TV can also use the HITS satellite to offer digital television signals. So there would be a rise in interest for adding more CAS notified areas.

Pan-Indian cable operators already digitising their networks such as Digicable, Hinduja Group’s MSO In2Cable, DEN Networks and Essel Group’s WWIL, which is a listed entity, can establish the sunset hour as a goal.

What of the thousands of smaller players belonging to the unorganised sector? HITS will not help those who operate only in a bunch of areas such as townships or satellite cities. On the bright side, digitisation through HITS could bring the much needed transparency and accountability into the sector. It also means the number of channels can go up from 80-90 channels (which is analogue’s carriage capacity) as compared to the 447 channels available for downlinking (as of June 2009).

Essel Group already invested in a HITS platform and launched its Siti Satellite HITS service in 2008; WWIL currently powers a total of 117 cities today. What happens to their investment?

On Doordarshan

The date for Doordarshan’s digitisation has not changed since 2 years – it can be expected to go fully digital by 2017 and by next year, it will broadcast the Commonwealth Games 2010 in high definition, according to a cabinet decision cleared recently, Soni has announced.

Autonomous Body For Content Regulation

Soni also said that an independent b0dy not under the control of the government would be instituted to oversee ministry related issues and provide direction in terms of emergencies for content control, as in the case of the Mumbai attacks. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announcing that terror strikes may occur again, such a body would be useful in protecting viewers from speculation, privacy issues and sensationalism by the fourth estate.

FM Radio Phase III; Issues

Decisions on the third phase of FM Radio rollouts in the country will also be taken before the cabinet in November and approval is expected for it by the year ends. There are a total of 248 radio stations today apart from All India Radio as of September 2009. Phase III would bring an expected 780 radio stations to 275 cities. Phase II in 2005 saw 337 new channels up for bidding.

Issues that need to be resolved in this phase include

  • payment of royalty to the music industry
  • restrictions on owning more than one FM station in a city
  • allowing news to be broadcast by private FM radio operators
  • changes to the foreign direct investment slab


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