Ending all speculation surrounding the roll-out of conditional access system (CAS) in the country, the government on 8-Apr-2008 gave in-principle approval to CAS extension in rest of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, and subsequently in 55 cities in a phased manner as suggested by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) held a meeting between the representative of the cable industry, broadcasters, consumer organizations and several state government officials, and said the roll-out would be done in phases.
Last Mile Glitches
It was pointed out at the meeting that last mile problems in the system needed to be ironed out. In areas like South Delhi, there have been concern about piracy at the local level. Many local cable operators are not maintaining their networks for the digital signals to pass smoothly. These issues were raised at the meeting and the need for a fail-safe and efficient rollout of CAS stressed.
The meeting was attended by representatives of broadcasters, multi-system operators (MSOs), cable operators, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and consumer forums as well chief secretaries of many states.
Chairing the meeting, I&B secretary Asha Swarup said the concerns of stakeholders would be tackled while working out the modalities of CAS implementation in more areas.
Stakeholders have urged that the CAS notification for the extension be issued at the earliest with the statutory 180 day sunset clause making CAS operational as of November 1, 2008 in the balance part of the three metros.
The time frame and the sequence of activities for the three metros as suggested by the stake holders is given on the opposite page.
Many state governments, which were earlier reluctant to introduce CAS (conditional access system), are now rethinking. Out of the 11 lakh cable TV houses covered under CAS across the four metros, only a little over 5 lakh have opted for digital set-top-boxes. In fact, over the last 12 months, the number of homes which opted for set-top box (STBs) under the CAS regime across the four metros has fallen.
The Delhi government has however decided to carry out a detailed study to evaluate the performance of CAS before extending the facility to other parts of the metropolis.
“A questionnaire seeking response from CAS users has been prepared as per suggestion of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of of India. It will soon be handed out to CAS users for their opinion,” a senior official of the Excise Department said.
The Delhi Excise department has been appointed as a nodal agency to coordinate between subscribers and nine authorized Multi-System operators.
Dip in the CAS Households
According to the data available with the government, the number of CAS homes in the capital, which installed a STB in the beginning of 2007, were an estimated 2.19 lakh. However, by December '07, they were down by more than 11% to 1.97 lakh. Mumbai too witnessed a slight dip in the number of CAS homes from 2.47 lakh in 2007. Kolkata was the only city that reported a marginal increase during the year.
Chennai, on the other hand, showed no growth in the number of CAS households. Although CAS has been in place in Chennai for several years, adoption continues to remain poor. At the end of December, 2007, there are 5,01,706 STBs installed in CAS notified area of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.
Says Cable operators Federation of India (COFI) president Roop Sharma, “ I believe that is largely because several channels have gone free-to-air in CAS-notified area in Delhi and Mumbai which are affluent areas with high disposable income.” As per the Industry data, the number of free-to-air channels carried by a cable network are around 103 and about 95 channels are paid.
MSOs agree that the penetration level of CAS works out to be just 45-50% in the CAS- notified areas. Says Essel group's executive director A Mohan, “I agree that the penetration is 50% but there is no dip. As per our company's data, the number of CAS households have increased. But I believe that the dip that is reflecting in the government data could be due to high piracy. This is the reason why we have been urging the government to make Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata CAS-notified completely.” He added that currently, cable operators divert the feed of channels available in non-CAS areas to CAS areas.
Many broadcasters are of the view that the dip in the number of CAS households could be due to non-compliance of quality of service norms set by Trai.
Mrs Roop Sharma, President COFI suggested that a DSO Fund (Digital Service Obligation Fund) should be floated, on the lines of the USO (Universal Service Obligation Fund) in the telecom sector. A part of the broadcasters' licence fee can go towards the proposed DSOF to help boost initiatives on digital transmission. This will help cable operators digitalise their networks faster, thus introducing addressability and CAS all over the country. This will bring cable TV services at par with telecom services, DTH, IPTV and Mobile TV and also empower the consumers.
The stake holders gave many suggestions for a speedy and smooth roll-out of CAS apart from the time plan for implementation. Some of these are:-
Quality of Services
It was suggested that TRAI should issue specific QoS Directions to LCOs for the consumer grievance issues to be addressed at the field level and also regarding solving issues regarding network/cable line problems.
MSOs to formulate regulatory directions and provide a detailed note to TRAI for fine tuning the same
Awareness, education and publicity for Consumers
This should be ongoing and all possible methods of publicity, awareness and customer education, should be implemented in such a way, so that it is known/viewed/read/seen by the customers.
One of the best methods is running of informative scrolls on CAS on the prime PAY TV channels during the prime time.
Issues of Billing
MSOs have suggested that they be allowed to directly bill pay TV customers and collect the revenue directly for onward distribution to LCOs and Broadcasters. The FTA amount should have an equitable sharing with MSOs.
Cable operators have asked TRAI to create a fair play formula for revenue sharing depending on the responsibilities, so that all revenue including carriage fee is distributed in a fair manner.
Piracy issues for Pay channels
With full city CAS, this issue will be mostly taken care off. However, for a stricter control, it has been suggested that broadcasters to inform of any specific areas where piracy is happening, so that the STBs can be fully deactivated. Also
MSOs to ensure a monitoring practice for STBs as per fingerprinting for a particular channel for a particular time and also physical monitoring of STBs with help of Broadcasters, Consumer Groups and Nodal Officers appointed by TRAI.
Notifications from Ministry of I&B
This will be required at the earliest for the entire CAS plan of the three existing Metro cities. The Rollout plan notification for the three phases as per TRAI recommendation has the approval of the entire industry and it was urged that the timetable be fine tuned to ensure that the three years notification be issued latest by June 30, 2008 with the first 18 cities being notified by September 30 for operationalisation by April 1, 2009.
It was suggested that voluntary implementation of CAS be given the official sanction. This will boost the efforts for digitalisation too as the addressability in digital networks will make CAS implementation easier. Also when Digitalisation and CAS are being implemented concurrently, integration process will be cost effective and economical.
Government was informed that consolidation of networks is already in progress in big cities. Even in the rural areas, operators were laying fiber optic cables to extend their networks to long distances so that more and more villages could be brought under a single network which will facilitate implementation of CAS economically allowing many channels to be provided in the rural areas.
Some of the issues raised by the broadcasters regarding the quality of CAS and SMS and Billing system are being looked into by TRAI separately. All these actions on the part of TRAI are infusing a new confidence in the industry inviting attention of international players in the field. With TRAI recommending 74% FDI in cable operation, many international investors are likely to invest in the Indian market making way for a faster growth of the industry.