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Finger On The Button

TV blues? No worry. The big boys are beaming down every which way.

Finger On The Button
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Finger On The Button
Life in front of the idiot box will never be the same again. First, our couch potatoes grappled with the cablewallah's idiosyncracies. Then, they thought their lives would be simpler with conditional access system (CAS), but that got delayed by politics and elections. Now, more choices confront them: direct-to-home (DTH) and broadband. Life for the Indian viewer is becoming as complex as choosing a cellular service provider.

Even as the CAS launch got postponed in most states, both DTH and broadband were quietly making inroads into Indian TV homes with the lure of "never before" channels, eliminating all middlemen between the broadcaster and viewer. And all of them, including CAS, claim they'll change India's TV viewing experience over the next six months. The era of multiple technologies and choices is here, something that even the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recommended in its February interim report on CAS.

The DTH offensive is backed by some of the biggest players. The Zee TV-promoted Dish TV has been first off the block, and claims to have wooed over a million subscribers already. Others waiting in line are the government-owned Prasar Bharati and Space TV, a joint venture between the Tata group and Star TV (FIPB approval came through recently). Then there are the hopefuls: Essel Shyam (a V-Sat and infrastructure unit partially owned by Zee) and Noida Software Technology Park Ltd, promoted by J.K. Jain's Jain Studios. In broadband, you have heavyweights like Reliance, Tatas and Bharti Enterprises.

Both technologies contend they are the best for consumers. The DTH players say their signals are dispatched from a satellite directly to a table fan-sized satellite dish placed in the viewer's home and since the signal is digital, the picture and sound quality is better. A cable operator is not required and the signals can be accessed from anywhere in the country. Says Jawahar Goel, MD, Dish TV: "We have a countrywide footprint and can offer the service to anyone anywhere in the country. We want to give consumers a choice, especially in areas where cable is present."

Broadband, say its supporters, will facilitate high-speed internet, online gaming and video-on-demand, apart from high quality cable TV. Unlike cable, CAS or DTH, which are one-way transmission systems, broadband will give full two-way interactivity. Explains Prakash Bajpayee, president, Reliance Infocomm, which is planning the country's largest service: "Today, TV and DTH are only one-way and the consumer does not have a choice. Broadband will change that. It will give him a choice for all his services and needs."

The excitement is building up. Space TV plans to invest Rs 1,400 crore to get a million DTH subscribers within the first year itself. Designed to beam 100 channels, its services will start this October. Says a Star TV spokesperson: "We're readying our offerings. We'll ensure the customers get the usual channels and many more." In comparison, Dish TV, which has already invested Rs 200 crore and plans to invest a similar amount in the second phase, aims to double its channel offerings to 96 by May.

Even Prasar Bharati has chalked out a Rs 300-crore plan to offer 30 DTH channels by June, which will double in a year's time. The state-owned broadcaster has called a meeting on April 30 to decide which ones will finally be showcased on its umbrella. The ones invited to the meeting include Zee, Aaj Tak, Sab TV, ETV, CNBC and Sahara TV. Says Prasar Bharati CEO K.S. Sarma: "We have limited space on our platform and will have to arrive at the best combination for our viewers."

In the case of broadband, Reliance hopes to launch in 1,100 cities soon. Says Bajpayee: "While TV will be the main medium, we will offer telephone, internet, DVD quality video and audio, and games over a single cable". Reliance's initiatives were strengthened by its recent acquisition of Flag Telecom, which has a global fibre-optic backbone. The Tatas, with their vsnl fibre backbone, and Bharti Enterprises, are also thinking big. Says Badri Agarwal, president, Bharti Infotel: "We'll introduce the concept of time-shifted TV which gives viewers the freedom to view any programme at a time of his choosing. This is not possible in cable or DTH. We are also looking at a larger role for online gaming in India."

However, things won't be as rosy as they look. First, the economics don't favour the new technologies. With average speeds of between 8 and 20 MB, broadband monthly charges are expected to be in the $15-25 (Rs 675-1,125) range, depending on usage and customer requirements. That's 3-6 times the subscription rate for cable or DTH. For DTH, the customer will have to pay additional for the equipment, including the dish and the set-top box. While Dish TV is charging Rs 4,310 for the equipment, plus a monthly fee of Rs 220, Space TV, say sources, will sell its set-top boxes for about Rs 3,000 and keep the monthly fee at around Rs 300. And one has to add the extra Rs 2,000 one-time payment for security deposit, membership fees and installation charges. Although Doordarshan's DTH service will be free-to-air, the customer will still have to pay Rs 5,500 for the equipment.

There are other limitations with DTH. It operates on the Ku band that is susceptible to adverse weather conditions. Content sharing is a grey area as it's difficult to get competing broadcasters to come together on a single platform. Which means if you subscribe to Zee's Dish TV, you may not be able to view channels from the Star stable. And vice-versa for Space TV. DTH set-top boxes may be company-specific and it may not be possible to switch services unless one buys fresh equipment. But the government, say industry sources, is working on the inter-operability of set-top boxes and interconnection and the new rules may be announced after the elections. If rules permit sometime in the future, DTH could also give broadband a run for its money. For, the technology allows DTH to offer wireless internet and other value-added services at much cheaper costs compared to broadband.

Whatever may be the shape of things to come, the fact is that all technologies can coexist. For example, CAS and DTH have sizeable bases in France, UK, Portugal, Malaysia and some West Asian nations. But in most of these countries, CAS offers video-on-demand and time-shifted TV like broadband. So, there's a possibility that all the technologies will survive in India. In the end, it will be the customer who decides which ones will thrive and which sputters off.

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