With just three days to go for introduction of complete digital access for television in four Metro cities, the plan for switchover from analog is mired in doubt and a sense of under-preparedness.

Most of the stakeholders — including the multi-system operators (MSOs) and local cable operators (LCOs) — seem to be waiting for their competition to make the first move, or seem ill-prepared to meet the November 1 deadline set by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to make the switch.

While CAS had warranted that only pay channels are encrypted, under Digital Addressable Systems (DAS), all channels can only be telecast in digital format and will require a set-top box.

The State government-run Arasu Cable TV Corporation, which recently announced the rollout of its services, is not in the list of MSOs to be granted licence to operate DAS for the Chennai metropolitan area, as indicated in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s notice dated October 26.

Attempts to reach Arasu Cable officials to ascertain if the company had applied for MSO licence for Chennai were in vain.

Five MSOs have so far been granted licences to operate in the Chennai Metropolitan area — Kal Cables Pvt Ltd (Sumangali Cable Vision), Aadhar Digital Vision Pvt Ltd, Shreeas Vision, JAK Communication Private Limited, Crystal Transmission Private Limited and Thalainagar Digital Cables Pvt Ltd.

Jothishankar Annamalai of Shreeas Vision said he was still waiting before investing in digital set top boxes. “It won’t be prudent on my part to rush to invest in a technology that will require substantial money without knowing what my competition has to offer,” he said.

A cable TV association representative, who requested not to be named, said the entire cable TV fraternity was right now just waiting to see how the rollout would happen on November 1 and whether they could buy some more time, as had been the case during the roll-out of the Conditional Access System (CAS).

A section of local cable TV operators, or last mile operators, have already started asking their customers for an advance of Rs. 500 or Rs. 1000 for the digital set-top boxes depending on the MSO they take the feed from. While Arasu Cable is asking for an advance of Rs. 500, other private MSOs are charging between Rs. 5 00 and Rs. 1,000.

Confusion over numbers

The precise number of cable TV users who are going to be affected is not known. This is due to a large discrepancy between the statistics on television homes as put out by Census 2011 and industry estimates.

Last Friday, a statement by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting made an announcement that sounded optimistic. “In Chennai, the cable homes are showing 61% digitization and together with DTH, the percentage of digitization goes up to 85%,” the statement available at Press Information Bureau’s website (pib.nic.in) read.

The Ministry’s methodology for determining this number and its assessment of cable TV homes has come in for strong criticism. Lt. Col. K.K. Sharma, editor of Cable Quest, an industry magazine that has closely followed the cable industry and has reported on the meetings of the Ministry’s task force for digitisation of cable, says the numbers of the cable TV homes in the city have been considerably downsized in recent months.

“The total number of cable TV homes in four Metros that were estimated by the Ministry itself in its meetings in August at 133 lakhs. But in the figures quoted since September, that number has been brought down,” he points out. The Ministry has pointed out that the number of TV households in four Metros, according to Census 2011, is 83 lakhs approximately.

The Ministry also rationalised its numbers on cable TV homes after taking into account DTH homes. According to last week’s statement, Chennai has close to 7.05 DTH homes. Based on that, the Ministry estimates the number of cable TV homes in Chennai to be only 4.28 lakhs.

Cable TV associations refute the Ministry’s assessment. Most associations had estimated the number of homes receiving either DTH or Cable TV at close to 40 lakhs. “To say that DTH homes won’t have cable TV connections and draw statistics based on that assumption is a joke,” a cable TV association representative said.

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