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DTH portability has sharply divided the Indian DTH industry.
After rooting for mobile number portability, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s move to re-examine DTH portability has sharply divided the Indian DTH industry.

While older players like Dish TV wants the government to ensure consumers can receive signals from more than one operator on the same box, the newer ones such as Reliance Big TV are opposed to the move.

Dish TV, promoted by the Essel/Zee Group — which is a part-owner of Diligent Media Corporation which publishes the DNA — termed the move “surprising” and possibly intended to help other operators who continue to violate existing interoperability norms.

DTH (direct to home) interoperability, while mandated by law, has been ignored by most players so far as they were busy capturing as much of the virgin market as possible, creating a highly fragmented market. Now, with subscriber numbers shooting up to 30 million from around 5 million in less than three years, some operators have started casting longing looks at the millions of customers on their rival’s service.

By inserting a module, known as conditional access module or CAM, subscribers can subscribe to channels from two separate DTH operators at the same time, without the need for a separate set-top-box. For example, a Reliance customer can add the channels provided by a rival, such as Airtel Digital, by purchasing the latter’s CAM and inserting it into the Reliance box.

Currently, only Dish TV is known to have active plans on the selling CAMs.

“CAM module (sic) is highly insecure from content security (piracy),” said Reliance BigTV in its response to the telecom regulator’s proposal on whether or not portability and interoperability between DTH operators should be strengthened.

Besides this, BigTV pointed out that the CAMs of newer operators will not work on the equipment of the older operators, while the latter’s CAMs will work on the set-top-boxes of new operators.

Newer operators, such as BigTV, Airtel, Videocon and Sun Direct use the latter version of encoding technology, while Dish TV and Tata Sky use the earlier versions.As a result, the four new players can only aspire to snatch customers away from each other, while the older players can target subscribers of any network for selling their CAMs.

“There would not be level playing field between operators,” BigTV said.

Interestingly, TataSky, a joint venture between the Tata Group and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Broadcasting of the UK, also supported BigTV’s position against mandating CAM-based interoperability. It pointed out that to achieve a level playing field, operators using older equipment such as itself will have to be forced to upgrade their equipment to support the CAMs of newer operators, which will cost billions of dollars.

It also pointed out that consumers have the option of simply installing a new dish and set-top-box to receive the channels of a competitor.

Both the operators were opposed by Dish TV, which even expressed its surprise that the government is willing to rethink interoperability. It pointed out that forcing consumers to install multiple dishes and set-top-boxes to receive signals from multiple operators called for needless expenditure by both operators as well as consumers.

“Dish TV is surprised to see the comments of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sent for reference to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.. and perceive it as an deliberate attempt to derail the standardization process and the process of interoperability,” it said.

Dish is learnt to be the only player serious about selling its CAMs to target the customers of existing operators, even at the cost of subsidising the cost of the initial equipment. Interestingly, some of the operators have already preempted such a move by implanting software that locks up the set-top-box if the subscriber tries to use the box to receive another service provider’s signal.

Dish TV pointed out that such practices are against the conditions laid down in the DTH license which require the box to be open and suitable for CAM-based operation.

“This is anti-consumer and is aimed at helping a certain section of the industry who to continue providing services without adhering and complying with the licensing conditions and also depriving the consumers of the benefits of the interoperability,” it complained.

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