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Of TRAI, DTH players and consumers
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Gurneet Singh had nicely got into the habit of waking up to soothing Gurbani that plays on ETC Punjabi every morning. For the past one week, he has been getting up all cranky and red-eyed with irritation.

Reason: His direct-to-home (DTH) operator has removed this channel from the activated subscription pack. He thought it would be a temporary affair as ETC Punjabi is a paid channel and as he had already subscribed for it, but as days passed he was proven wrong.

A week later, he finds a message pasted where the channel should have been, informing him that he would have to subscribe the channel to resume service. Frustrated, he calls customer care only to learn that the DTH operator had removed the channel from his activated subscription pack and if he wishes to watch it again, he would have to pay an additional subscription fee.

Singh protested saying he was being asked to pay up two times in a month. If there is to be a change in pricing then it should be reflected next month. But the monotone from the other side of the phone replied, without much emotion, that nothing could now be done as the pack rates have changed and he would have to pay up extra for resuming transmission of the channel.

Undeterred, Singh decided to lodge a complaint with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), only to realise he is not the only one filing a similar complaint. TRAI has already received a host of similar complaints from customers: DTH providers at times stop showing one particular channel from the list of channels that they had subscribed at the start of the month. And that too without any prior notice.

The regulator has raised concerns with regards to the same and has directed all DTH providers to inform customers about any change in the packages subscribed and give them at least 15 days time before implementing the change.

"The service provider also cannot remove a channel from DTH viewers' subscription package during the first six months of enrolment or during the period of validity of a prepaid subscription package, whichever is longer," TRAI said in a statement recently.

Apart from this TRAI has also come out with a directive that DTH players should offer channels as al a carte rather than in bouquets, which actually is the practice. Currently the Star bouquet (that consists of 18 channels) is being offered at Rs 48 per subscriber per month, while the Multi Screen Media (MSM, previously known as Sony Entertainment) bouquet of five channels is available for Rs 29.

Therefore, DTH providers argue that the current pricing is competitive and if they are forced to offer channels individually as opposed to bouquet, they would not have the kind of bargaining power with the broadcasters as they have now.

This would mean that the customers would have to shell out more. But then, DTH operators cannot ignore the fact that not all consumers watch all channels and that too offered by a same broadcaster.

For instance, take the MSM bouquet. It has two English movie channels – Sony Pix and HBO - both of which are paid channels. However, there would be customers who may want to watch only one of them.

Worst they would just want to watch Sony and no English channel, then why should such customers be forced to pay for all the five channels? Even the Supreme Court has upheld TRAI's words and ordered DTH operators to start offering end customers the choice of picking individual channels in addition to bouquets.

The above mentioned cases clearly indicate that despite there being six players in the DTH segment, there are still a lot of loopholes that need to be addressed.

"Most people who have DTH installed in their houses would vouch for the pathetic customer service that they have to bear with and there is no transparency in the charges that are being levied on them," avers a media analyst on conditions of anonymity.

In fact, it does not matter which brand you pick as there are issues with the customer service being offered by each player. It's not that these companies don't have customer care centers but most customers believe that they are inadequate in taking concrete action towards their complaints.

What's more is that there are customers who have complained that some DTH call centers do not even provide something as basic as a complaint number leave alone any follow up or corrective action.

The people who are already using a DTH service also complain that most of the time there are arbitrary deductions from their pre-paid account and no explanations are given. This problem can be easily addressed by the introduction of a post-paid system for DTH, under which these operators would be required to give an itemised bill for all the charges that were levied on a particular customer for a particular month.

However, unfortunately, currently no Indian operator offers a post paid DTH. Add to it, the current set top boxes are even locked, which means if one has bought the set top box from Tata Sky, and does not want to continue with it for any reason then the only way out for the person concerned would be to purchase a new set top box.

"The Indian DTH industry is currently at a very nascent stage and it is only when the penetration increases that we should be really looking at unlocked set top boxes." reasons Vikram Kaushik, managing director, Tata Sky.

It is ironic that while these players are spending crore of rupees to rope in multiple brand ambassadors, they are unable to put in place an accountable and efficient customer grievance handling system, which is the need of the hour.

As of now, the best hope for the Indian consumer is the intensifying competition in the Indian DTH industry, when supply would outstrip demand. The day when these DTH operators find it difficult to lure in new customers, would be the day when they would start looking such essential consumer demands.

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