Thursday, 21 April 2011

Digitalisation Deadlines await Notification

The Telecom Regulatory Authority has stuck on their deadlines for completing the process of digitalization by 31st December 2013, even after receiving Ministry's suggestion of postponing it to 31st March 2015. Experts in the industry call it an ambitious proposal. However TRAI Chairman J S Sarma defends the deadlines saying that we should be in a hurry to achieve this lest, we miss the great opportunity of using the Digital Power to uplift the Economy. 
What Mr Sarma has in mind is very true. This is also reflected in the National Broadband Plan proposed by TRAI to the government where more responsibility has been given to the cable TV operators who are yet to take-off in this direction, even more than the telecom players who are reaping the benefits of Government subsidies for the last ten years but achieved a mere 10 million broadband connectivity, a matter to be ashamed of. 

Since 2004 TRAI looks after the regulatory aspects of both Telecom Sector and Broadcasting Sector. I wonder what role TRAI plays when the Nation suffers like this. It appears that TRAI only does the paper work and rest is left to the Babus in the Ministries and the Lobbies that influence the government for vested interests derailing technology implementations. 
On many occasions digitalization has been discussed in the government quarters and deadlines suggested. The whole process was started in 2003 when CAS notification was issued which could have expedited the move but it was deferred by the politicians. In 2006 the matter was made a part of the 11th Five Year Plan and a special committee was instituted in the PMO to do the brain storming. The Committee after many meetings suggested the deadline of 2012 for completing the Digitalisation of the broadcasting sector including Cable TV, Doordarshan, and All India Radio. Later in 2008 TRAI discussed the matter with the Industry and in agreement with the MSOs and the cable TV operators, planned the digitization of all cities with more than one million populations within three years. TRAI had even given their Recommendations for 'Restructuring the Cable TV Sector' in 2008 to speed up digitalization. 
What have we achieved till today? Practically nothing. Whatever digitization has been done in Cable TV, it is the initiative of the MSOs/ Independent operators who wanted to fight the competition with the DTH companies who were promoted by the government as the best option to sideline the Cable. It is a matter of concern now as we are lagging behind rest of the world in converging technologies and have achieved nothing in telecom sector or in DTH which is a one way medium. Now the whole focus has been shifted to the Cable TV sector and surely, we are in a hurry. Can we do it now? 
Cable TV penetration has risen to 90 million homes at the end of year 2010 and still has a lot of potential to grow. However, the present mode of Cable TV transmission which is predominantly analogue, has certain limitations as it lacks scope for technological up-gradation, appropriate addressability and efficient resource utilization. 
The sector is marred with disputes relating to actual subscriber base, poor quality of service and inadequate consumer grievance redressal mechanism. The non-availability of authenticated data, lack of supervisory guidance and unorganized development of Cable TV industry are some of the roadblocks to explore its full potential. 
TRAI in 2008 has recommended a well defined, robust and supportive licensing framework to restructure the Cable TV sector in order to boost planned, sustained growth and better services to customers. and help the industry to digitise faster. It is sad that these recommendations are still lying in the Ministry for final approval and notification for the last three years. 
With more and more convergence taking place especially between Broadcasting and Telecommunication sectors, the conventional cable TV networks will have to be upgraded for exploiting new avenues for delivering the converged services. 
The convergence and advent of NGN will require high speed broadband access to subscribers. Cable operators can contribute a lot in this direction as it will help to increase broadband penetration drastically. 
TRAI in their proposal for the National Broadband Plan has projected cable TV to provide 28 million by 2012 and 72 million broadband connections by 2013. This will definitely require up-gradation of present Cable TV Networks to two-way digital cable networks. Such network up gradation requires huge resources inflow which can be attracted only in a well organized sector with supportive regulatory framework. 
Recognizing the contributions and investments made by present Local Cable Operators (LCOs) in terms of time, manpower and money the framework suggested by TRAI in their recommendation on 'Restructuring the Cable TV Sector' would encourage continuing role for the present Cable TV operators in the restructuring of the Sector which is a must before we talk of digitalisation. 
These recommendations have also assured that no undesired persons get the cable TV license as the eligibility criteria demands an affidavit from the person stating that he has not been convicted for any criminal offence. 
For providing better and modern services TRAI wants Cable TV operators to be made eligible for seeking RoW for laying Cable/Optic fiber both underground as well as over poles on non exclusive basis. Concerned State Governments/ local bodies may consider formulating a RoW policy for Cable TV operators. Ministry of I&B may initiate a dialogue with the state governments to facilitate the formulation of uniform Row policy for Cable TV operators. 
The TRAI Recommendations also relieve the LCOs from the responsibility for the content provided by MSOs/ Broadcasters, but they will effectively block such content whenever they are required to do so by the authorized officer. 
LCOs shall be permitted to transmit their local video channels, which will be subjected to Program code and Advertisement code as prescribed in the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995. 
According to the Recommendations, LCOs providing the broadband services after obtaining appropriate license in rural and far flung areas using two way digitalised cable networks shall be entitled for USOF subsidy/ support given to telecom operators for providing similar services if they fulfill terms and conditions laid by USOF. No discrimination shall be done based on the type of network and technology used to provide a broadband service. 
After so much of thought and time spent on these recommendations, we are yet to see it happening on ground. We hope that both TRAI and the Government are really remain in a hurry to achieve the deadlines whether it be 2013 or 2015.


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