Jaldi 5 with Roop Sharma: All set for digitization!?

31 Oct,2012

Roop Sharma

It’s the day of reckoning for the Indian media sector as mandatory digitization is scheduled to happen in the four metros of Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. While there are various stakeholders, the role of the local cable operators (LCOs) is most critical for the move to be successful. Over the last few weeks, LCOs have been exceedingly vocal on the problems with digitization move. MxMIndia spoke to Roop Sharma, founder and president of the Cable Operators Federation of India on the morning of October 31…


01.   So the sun is finally going to set on analogue transmission in the four metros today?

Yes, this is what looks like considering the attitude of the government.

Don’t you think some teething troubles would exist even if there was 100% set-top box installation?

Firstly, everyone including the Ministry knows that seeding of STBs is not 100%. So many consumers would be having a dark day if analogue is switched off tonight. Secondly, consumer choice has not been asked and fed into the SMS systems of the MSOs. Ministry press release says that this would be done in the next 15 days. I doubt if that is possible to collect and feed the data of about 10 million subs in such a situation. Any way, the Ministry’s job will finish after they give another release patting their own back for a good job done. It damn cares for what the consumers go through. I expect a chaotic situation for another two to three months when people come to terms with what has happened.

Do you still have reservations about whether it will work?

I have never suspected working of the technology and always favoured digitalisatioin.  However, I do suspect the intention of the government behind the whole exercise. It appears that it is being pressurized by some external force otherwise government would have remembered its social, economical and political responsibility while implementing a new technology, forcing down the throat of the masses in the name of doing good.

You check the experience in rest of the world. No government has ever mandated digitization in a private cable TV industry anywhere in the world. In the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia and in many other countries, they digitalized terrestrial television services given free to the masses because it frees lot of spectrum that can be used for new telecom services. While doing this, they ensured that till the last customer is given a digital STB, no analog switch off takes place. Not only this, they offered free STBs to millions or gave a subsidy to buy an STB for each TV set.

India is not so rich. It could have let analogue exist for the poor masses or provided an alternative, digitizing the free terrestrial services of Doordarshan for them. Don’t forget it is cable TV that made a information and knowledge based society in India and not mobile communications. Real globalisation started with cable TV revolution in India in early nineties.


02.   If the government turns a blind eye to data pilferage to non-digitised subscribers for a few months, LCOs and MSOs should not have any problems?

Let’s not talk about pilferage of data. Even in the US there is 15% accepted piracy. Has the government stopped pilferage of food grains from its godowns, tax avoidance or corruption in the big industries and politics? However, government should have ensured that every existing customer is enabled to receive digital service and afford the service. Ministry is working like Gestapo as if it is a question of life and death for the nation.


03.   If LCOs don’t get proactive, you’ll lose customers to DTH, as there are some attractive schemes on offer?

No, this cannot happen. Don’t forget that DTH existed since 2003 in India. If the service was affordable and so good, cable TV would have lost all its connections to it. This has not happened in the last eight years. It will not happen now also. DTH gains are only in cable dark areas or far flung isolated areas. This is the main reason that Ministry is so proactive in making Cable TV more costly than DTH so that consumers are forced to shift to DTH.

For your information, there is no transparency on DTH in spite of it being a fully digital service. All their content deals are done not based on the actual consumer consumption but lump some deals. Consumers do not get their choice. To get your choice on DTH, you shell out not less than Rs 400 per month. Government is befooling the masses to help a few large media groups who enjoy monopolies in the media markets through their numerous TV channels, This was very evident from the ads given by the government, broadcasters and DTH companies on TV and print media. They had a threatening and scary tone to terrorise the consumers rather than convince them. Otherwise, why should the ads tell the cable TV subscribers to approach DTH operators when the law is made to digitalise cable TV.

If you ask me, this law will prove a death knell for all small players, both cable operators and broadcasters.


04.   Is there fair clarity on the subscription pack tariff and how much LCOs will earn in the new regime?

No, there is no clarity so far. Many popular channels are missing from packages offered as well as a-la-carte offerings. Consumers are clueless till now.


05.   As owners of the all-important last mile, your role in this gamechanging move is critical. But there are many who think that cable operators have suddenly started creating obstacles to delay digitization. Why this sudden reluctance?

We appraised the government what is the true situation on the ground. However, since that was against their mindset, they started ignoring us. In fact, they started having separate meetings with broadcasters and MSOs where cable operators were not made to participate.

Your critics say that LCOs have realized that their income is going to take a beating… legimately with margins and because digital transmission will require reporting correct subscriber numbers

It is not a question of dwindling income, what is disturbing to the cable operators is that government has made a law to force LCOs to hand over their years old family business to the big media houses.


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