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Sun Sets On Analog Television

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While legislators have been seemingly preoccupied with the Lokpal Bill, an amendment regularising the digitisation of television cable systems was quietly passed by both houses of Parliament. The amendment to Section 4A of the Cable Regulation Act, 1995, legalises an ordinance issued in October this year for implementing digital addressable cable systems (DAS) throughout the country in phases starting, June 2012.

For the first time, modernisation of this very significant part of the electronic media seems achievable because of near-unanimity among all stake-holders. The government has realised it is losing hundreds of crores in entertainment and service tax due to under-reporting of connections in the old analog systems. Broadcasters are fed up of incurring losses on account of arbitrary carriage fees charged by operators. The multi-system operators (MSOs) realise if they do not modernise their cable networks, DTH will gain.

The only opponents are the small cable operators who have offered muted opposition this time — a challenge filed in the Delhi High Court by the Cable Operators United Front was hastily withdrawn after the organisation's leader was granted an MSO license by the information and broadcasting  ministry!

"There is still a long way to go though," insists Ashok Mansukhani, spokesperson for the MSO Alliance, "the issue of tariff, the interconnect agreement and quality of service is still to be settled. The Telecom Regulatory Authority (Trai) is expected to come out with a consultative paper by February, and only after that we expect the new cable rules to be notified."

 Industry observers say that the task of installing 10-12 million set-top boxes to enforce digitisation will be a nightmare in the short time available. Consumer resistance is expected, and if the earlier, unsuccessful  attempts at introducing conditional access systems (CAS) are anything to go by,  purchasing a set-top box (STB) will be postponed to the very last minute. This will result in a scramble before the ‘analog sunset' comes into effect from 30 June, 2012.

Further confusion is expected because those opting for the basic free-to-air (FTA) channels will also have to take their feed through a digital set-top box. "Under CAS, a basic package of non-pay channels was available for Rs 83 a month. Now, in the first phase, nearly 60 per cent of the urban poor will not only have to pay for a costly set-top box but pay an entry fee of Rs 150 for the basic channels," says Dinyar Contractor, editor of the industry magazine, Satellite & Cable Television.

Broadcasters keen to lap up the subscription fees of analog cable homes are also delaying digital conversion till such a time that it is absolutely mandatory to convert.

Delays in implementation are a possibility and some have suggested that the ‘sunset' date for analog cable in the four metros be extended till 30 September, 2012. These, however, are transitional hiccups and this round of cable television  digitisation is well on its way.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-01-2012)