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On June 30, 2012, television viewing in India is going to change forever. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act, 2011, passed in the Lok Sabha last month, goes into effect that day, making it mandatory for all cable operators to transmit their channels through a digital medium.

In other words, to watch digital TV you need no longer look to direct-to-home (DTH) service providers such as Tata Sky, Dish TV, Airtel, Reliance and others. Your local cable TV operator will be able to bring you the sharp pictures that you’ve longed to see for so many years.

Indeed, the digitisation of cable television is likely to translate into a bonanza for consumers. Since cable operators will now be in direct competition with DTH service providers, the former will have to improve their quality of service, offer hundreds of channels more and come up with competitive subscriber package pricing as well.

Though DTH has been growing rapidly since it was introduced in India about six years ago, even today the number of DTH subscribers is nowhere near that of cable TV. The total number of DTH subscribers in the country is expected to touch about 40 million this year, while the cable subscriber base is at a huge 94 million. Back in 2006, there were only around 1 million DTH subscribers, which means there has been an increase of 6.5 million subscribers per year. On the other hand, cable has only added 26 million subscribers since 2006, or just over 4.3 million annually.

Clearly, DTH has scored over cable TV with its superior picture quality and customer-friendly service. As Milan Sheth, a partner of Ernst and Young India’s technology practice arm, says, “DTH rose because it offered a unique user-oriented experience.”

Even so, many people continued with cable television as switching to DTH involved investing in a set top box and a dish, which was a costlier option. But now with cable TV coming on a par with DTH, bad customer service could potentially drive subscribers away from cable and into the arms of DTH, says Sheth.

Of course, the biggest and most basic advantage of digitising cable TV is that subscribers will be able to get sharp, crystal clear pictures on their television screens, says K.K. Binani, secretary of the Cable TV Equipment Traders and Manufacturers Association. “Cable’s picture quality was inferior because it was analog. This move makes it [digital quality] universal,” Binani points out.

Once they go digital, cable television will also be able to offer such services as video-on-demand and the facility to record your favourite programmes — so long the exclusive preserve of DTH.

Another major benefit to consumers will be the massive increase in the number of channels that cable television will be able to offer now. “Currently we have about 90 channels,” says Viswa Adhikari, proprietor of Star Vision Cable Link, a Calcutta-based cable TV operator. “But with digitisation, we will be able to provide our customers with around 400 channels — maybe more.” Technically, you can get 1,000 channels on digitised cable, adds Binani, although India has only about 700 channels in total.

Once digitisation takes place, cable will actually score over DTH on some fronts. “Unlike DTH companies, cable service providers don’t have to pay for licence space. This means we can send out more data, and hence more channels,” says Binani. The other big advantage, he points out, is that cable would continue to be able to regionalise content. “If there is a predominantly Bengali area in Delhi, for example, cable operators will be able to provide Bengali programming and packages for it — something that DTH cannot do,” he says.

The most exciting development could be the arrival of Internet broadband on digital cable service. You will no longer need to get a separate Internet connection for your computer, since your cable connection would include that.

Of course, things are not going to change overnight. The logistics of upgrading and digitising India’s massive cable TV network is a huge and complicated one. However, Sujit Das, managing director of AMBC Pvt. Ltd, a multi-service operator (MSO) in Calcutta, is confident that the process of digitisation will go smoothly. “The government is rolling this out in phases. Phase one, which is the June 30 date, will be only in the metros. Phase two will be in tier-II cities such as Pune, and Hyderabad, which are expected to go digital by December 31 this year. The upgradation process will be completed for the entire country by 2014.”

A major challenge, as far as cable TV operators are concerned, could be the shortage of digital set top boxes (STBs), most of which are imported from China, Korea and Japan, and the cost of digital hardware. There could be a supply bottleneck, predicts Das. “We need 94 million STBs by 2014. And there’s the cost of import duty as well.”

There is no clarity either on who will bear the cost of laying the optic fibre cables, setting up the new hardware, and so on. “Will the consumers be expected to pay for this, or will the MSOs and cable operators have to shoulder the burden,” he asks.

Again, neither the MSOs nor the cable operators are sure what customers will have to pay for watching digital television. Insiders reveal that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is still working out the pricing for the new services. “Right now, we charge Rs 150 for a basic channel package,” says Kajal Mitra, who runs Sky Vision, a cable television provider in Calcutta. “For Rs 500 or thereabouts, we will provide more channels, though the pricing hasn’t been fixed yet. We will certainly not charge more than DTH, though. We are now in direct competition with them.”

Despite its many advantages, the consumer response to digitised cable has been rather lukewarm so far, as has been the response of the cable TV operators. As it happens, though, neither side has a choice in the matter. Come July, TV in India will step into a whole new, digital league.

Source: The Telegraph India

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