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Will the cable be cut?

SEVANTI NINAN

THE closer we get to the deadline for implementing conditional access, the loonier the whole scheme seems. I don't want to pay Rs. 250 to watch channels I don't need so I will cough up Rs. 7,000 for the privilege of paying may be Rs. 100 less per month? And still run the risk of having my cable cut, because none of that will change? The broadcaster does not want to be paid for 20,000 households by a little neighbourhood thug who is actually distributing his signal to 30,000 so his channel becomes accessible only to those willing to pay Rs. 7,000 for a set top box. The viewer says thanks, but no thanks. And does the broadcaster get even the 20,000 households he was getting? Of course not.

Will he continue to get the advertising he was getting? The media planner says, Look buddy I don't know how many are watching you any more, so I'll hold my client's ads for a couple of months.

The multi-system operator (MSO) has to import set top boxes. How many should he get? At Rs. 7,000 to the consumer after taxes and import duties have been paid, he is understandably reluctant to import too many. The technology is proprietorial, if the subscriber shifts house to another locality he'll have to buy another box. He cannot lease boxes to the subscriber because he will not recover his cost if prices crash. He cannot take back boxes already sold when the consumer moves house for the same reason.

Meanwhile will the broadcasters let up on demanding higher declarations of households from him? Just before World Cup Cricket Sony unilaterally doubled, tripled and quadrupled the declarations it was demanding from the cable service providers. They coughed up. What an MSO pays to the channels collectively runs into crores, and has to be recovered down the line. Multiply Rs. 55 for one bouquet per household into say, 50,000 households, and add the costs of all the available bouquets and other individual pay channels like Fashion Television (FTV). That is the menu he has to make available for conditional access.

The cable operator is being told that he will have to give a free-to-air package at a fixed, relatively low price. He still has to maintain his receiving equipment and cables. His margins are almost non-existent. He cannot fudge figures to the broadcasters if more people have set top boxes. He has to pay tax to the government, and money to the MSO for each one he services. He faces an increasingly consumer conscious subscriber. He is definitely not thanking Sushma Swaraj for her gift to the nation.

The advantages add up only for those who will stick with free-to-air packages. If the boxes are digital they cost too much, the legislation was brought in by quoting the price of the analog box. The latter suits the consumer but not the cable operator, because it's much easier to fiddle with. The advantages may also add up eventually for the wealthy subscriber but then that category is better off subscribing to Direct To Home (DTH) which will soon become an option.

Conditional access will not work smoothly in India for the same reason that our cable service does not work smoothly. The delivery system is not a professional network but a partially lumpen one. For 10 years we've been too busy watching television to worry about the thuggery inherent in the system which delivers ever-growing choice to our TV set. From the beginning, India's cable TV revolution has been an inherently entrepreneurial, inherently lawless cottage industry. Overhead cable came in and stayed though it was illegal.

This is unique internationally, and it is unique in India. Cheating, lying and cable cutting is not par for the course with telephone, internet, or power providers in our cities. But the cable and satellite industry, illegal from birth, never managed to acquire a legitimate style of functioning. There is no regulator to govern it. The Cable Act authorised local authorities to enforce it, but seven years after it was passed do we know which local authority to report the cable operator to? Do we know what exactly he is authorised to enforce?

Instead the operator turns the tables on the subscriber. In Kodambakkam in Chennai when subscribers formed an association and wrote a letter of complaint to the operator, he told the cops they were threatening him, and the next thing the office bearers knew is that the police were at their doorstep.

How many cable operators in this country offer a clearly priced menu of services, these are the channels you will get, and this is what each of them costs? If you don't get the service you pay for, this is where you complain. How many cable operators have been able to take a bank loan to upgrade equipment, have a transparent method of declaring the households they service, pay the broadcasters accordingly, and collect their dues. If cable operators were honourable, and subscribers were equally honourable and willing to pay, you could implement CAS with analog boxes. If the government was serious about identifying cable households it could use postmen or those who check power or water metres to do so. Once the government has the records, broadcasters can check them when they have doubts about under-declaration. Why do we have no choice of service provider for cable TV when there is one for cellular phones and Internet? Because the monopoly is illegally enforced.

Cutting a TV cable is not a crime in our laws, whereas cutting a telephone cable is. When a broadcaster turns demanding, his channel goes dead on your set. Will set top boxes transform the cable industry? You could argue that they will help make the system more transparent. But that is if the subscriber is ready to pay for a digital box. Indians are not particularly enamoured of paying, neither the subscriber, nor the operator who is taking the signal from the broadcaster.

Conditional access should have been preceded by a regulatory regime which insists on proper enforcement of the existing provisions of the Cable TV act. Cable operations should stand to lose their registration if they do not deliver a transparent, quality service. But the same government which is raring to implement it is in no hurry at all to bring in the Convergence Bill which will supercede the cable TV act and create a regulated playing field for the entire industry.

E-mail the writer at sevanti_ninan@yahoo.co.in

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