Wednesday, Jul 16, 2003
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By Anand Parthasarathy
"We are at a key inflection point," says Andy Ras-Work, Chief Operating Officer of the Washington DC-based corporation, now on a brief visit here. "Having gained 55,000 customers with a bouquet of just under 30 channels, we are ready for phase two when we can rapidly expand the network and reach out to more areas in India. We have been helped by excellent content providers in niche areas of Indian music as well as by receiver manufacturers like BPL who have brought out a wide range of sets for all pockets."
In a special briefing today for The Hindu, Mr. Ras-Work and K.R. Harish, Managing Director of the WorldSpace India operation, said the company that pioneered digital satellite radio worldwide chose to establish its pioneering presence here backed by two geosynchronous satellites AsiaStar and AfriStar hovering 35,800 km over the equator. Customers could directly receive the all-digital audio content in their homes with special portable receivers that cost between Rs. 5000 and Rs. 12,000 and included a 10-cm wide satellite antenna.
When the service was first introduced in South India in early 2001, it had not been tried out anywhere in the West the U.S. was served by local providers XM Radio and Sirius only after a year.
The WorldSpace service in India includes about 15 channels that can be freely received, while another 14 soon to increase cost around Rs. 70 per month by subscription.
The bouquet beamed over the sub-continent includes channels like AIR, BBC, CNN and Bloomberg as well as niche music channels in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, Hindi and Tamil popular music, devotional music and a full slate of Western pop and classical fare.
Channels like the Bangalore-based Radio Indigo as well as RM Radio in Malayalam and VRG in Tamil had built up a large following.
Mr. Ras-Work said satellite radio was only just gaining an audience in the U.S. and Europe but China and India were some way ahead in exploiting this cutting edge technology.
How to harness an all pervading, all-weather network like this for socially relevant purposes is something WorldSpace is now experimenting with.
It had broadcast live a world conference on AIDS from Africa a few weeks ago and is also carrying out trial uplinks of weather information for the fisherfolk and other forecasting services that could be useful in a disaster situation.
Most of their customers sign up for the crystal clear hi-fi audio quality of digital radio and for the eclectic music choice but the potential as a sheer information tool for the masses is only now emerging. WorldSpace expects the cost of receivers to fall below Rs. 5000 in the coming weeks, which will make them more affordable.
For India at least, it seems, satellite-based radio is an idea whose time has come.
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