Millennium Post

Restoring connection

Two years ago, Sukhbir Sharma, a cable operator for the past 20 years in Samalkha Village in southwest Delhi had almost planned to open a mobile shop to earn his living when digitisation of cable TV started in 2012. ‘My subscriber base had fallen from over thousand to just a two-digit number within a span of two weeks. I had never done anything else apart from this. My friends had suggested me to start a mobile shop to make ends meet’, recalled Sukhbir.

The digitisation of cable TV in India largely affected the livelihoods of hundreds and thousands of local cable operators (LCO) in India. The LCOs alleged that the digitisation gave undue advantage to handful of DTH players, which were already operating since the last few years.

The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2011 aimed at digitising cable television sector in India. The number of TV households in India is expected to grow to 200 million by 2017.
In the first phase, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata were digitised by October 2012. In the second phase, 38 cities including Faridabad, Meerut, Chandigarh among other were digitized by 31 March, 2013. The deadline to achieve digitisation in the entire country is December 2014.

With digitisation, ensued a corporate war between multi-system operators (MSO), operator of multiple cable television systems, and big DTH (direct-to-home) players. A large number of consumers had shifted to DTH services following digitisation, mainly because of unpreparedness of MSOs to deal with digitisation. India has 115 multi-system operators such as Hathway, SITI, DIGI Cable, etc.

The MSOs had to compete with established DTH players such as Tata Sky, Big TV, Dish TV to name a few, besides educating its LCOs and consumers about the digital shift.

The unpreparedness of LCOs led consumers to look for alternative cable television system in the form of DTH. Initially, it emerged as the successful cable alternative in many part of India including the national capital. However, it is observed that many consumers, of late have shifted back to cable television.

The LCOs as well as consumers have given various reasons for the shift. While the consumers feel that cable services are way cheaper than DTH, LCOs blame it on poor service quality offered by DTH operators.

‘During any special sporting event like world cup or IPL, these DTH operators stop airing the particular channel and charge extra for it. Also, it is very expensive as compared to cable TV. The installation cost itself is around Rs 5,000-6,000 as compared to flat Rs 1,000 for cable TV’, said Anukriti Banyal, an architect who switched over to cable TV recently.

On the other hand, a cable operator from Amar Colony in Lajpat Nagar feels that DTH operators have certain limitations as compared to cable TV system. ‘Even during the mildest of rains, the DTH loses signals causing inconvenience to the subscribers. Our signals remain strong throughout’, claimed Pankar Kumar, a cable operator in Lajpat Nagar.

But there are also some consumers who maintain that DTH operators offer services which cable operators can’t match. ‘Why would I shift to any cable TV when my DTH can provide me all the services such as broadband, high definition picture quality and many more things’, echoed Anuriti Banyal, a college students who use IPTV services of a big telecom brand.

The digitisation was an attempt to improve the quality of cable TV in India and provide enhanced picture quality to crores of cable consumers. It also aimed at ending the monopoly of LCOs who’d charge depending on the locality and consumer base. The LCOs also used to under-report their subscriber base to avoid revenue sharing with MSO.

Even Sukhbir Sharma, who enjoyed the monopoly of being the lone cable operator in his area for over 15 years, confessed to have charged ‘exorbitantly’ during the non-digitisation days.
However, he feels that digitisation has benefitted him to some extent. ‘Earlier, the system was so unorganised that most customers would operate three to four connections and pay for just one. But now with digitisation, one set top box is required for each television set’, said Sharma while adding that his subscriber base has also increased post digitisation.

One of the main reasons for shifting to cable is that there are numerous regional channels which are not available on DTH. The reason being, DTH operators charge very high carriage fee from channels. Carriage fee is the amount that broadcasters pay to MSO or DTH operators for taking their channel to the viewers.

Carriage fee has always been a bone of contention between broadcasters and operators. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India suggested that carriage fee would range from Rs 3-5 per set top box per channel per annum.

A senior manager at one of MSOs in Delhi, requesting anonymity said, ‘DTH operators charge as much as Rs 10 crore for airing a channel. But our rates are very reasonable and fixed which gives us an added advantage.’
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