October 31 deadline will not be extended, says I&B Secy

In a bid to show that it is serious about implementing the digitalization of cable television in the metros – and that no further deadline delays will be granted – the government has revoked the registration of two multi system operators (MSOs) which it says have not complied with the process.

However, one of the affected MSOs says the government is trying to rush digitalization on cable operators without first settling issues like the rates that customers will have to pay under the new system.

Over 1.2 crore households with cable television in the four metro cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata are expected to move from analogue to digital signals by October 31. The original deadline was June 30, but the government had postponed the switchover date when faced with the prospect of a mass cable TV blackout, given that 90 lakh households still did not have the needed set top boxes. The whole country will make the switchover by 2014.

On Friday, Information and Broadcasting Secretary Uday Varma made it clear that no further delays would be allowed. “My appeal and request to all of you is to conclude negotiations quickly, seed the set top boxes...and ensure that on 1st November it is fully functional,” he told a meeting of stakeholders -- MSOs, local cable operators (LCOs) and broadcasters -- organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Given that the success of the implementation process depends on the timely installation of set top boxes, the Ministry has been collecting data from MSOs every week on the status of preparations and their plans for infrastructure expansion. Home Cable Network Private Limited and Swami Cable Network – both Delhi-based MSOs – have had their registrations revoked as they have failed to provide this data despite repeated written requests, indicating “their lack of seriousness”, according to a Ministry statement.

“The Ministry has been constantly monitoring the implementation of the Digital Addressable System and any non-seriousness on the part of MSOs registered with the Ministry would evoke stern action from the Ministry,” it warned.

However, Home Cable network chairman and managing director Vikki Choudhry insisted that he could not be expected to provide data on set top box installation until the rates to be charged by broadcasters under the new system were finalised.

“The Government of India is trying to serve a half-baked cake to the Indian public, while completely ignoring the interest of the public at large,” he said in his reply to the Ministry’s show cause notice, adding that a lot of issues relating to the smooth implementation of digitalization had not yet been addressed and could cause unnecessary chaos and hardship to consumers.

One key area of contention seems to be his assertion that reasonable tariff rates for pay channels have not yet been fixed by the regulator and standard interconnect agreements with broadcasters are still being negotiated. “How can I make a customer install his set top box without even telling him the rates of pay channels?” asked Mr. Choudhry.

He also said that unless LCOs, who are the last-mile operators of the system interacting directly with the consumer, were brought under the ambit of DAS regulations, implementation would prove difficult.

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