Kishen Lal’s tiny shop at Vikaspuri in West Delhi is more crowded than usual this month. The cluttered desk apart, visitors’ chairs and ubiquitous television sets that take up space in the Raj Cable Network office, teetering stacks of cardboard boxes inscribed with the legend, ‘Siticable Digital Set Top Box’ — and in smaller letters ‘Made in China’ — are piled up against two walls.

With the city’s cable television system switching over from analogue to digital, these boxes must be delivered to each of Kishen Lal’s 800-odd customers by October 31. Otherwise, the government warns, they will face a blackout the next morning.

Mr. Lal is not too impressed with the government’s bluster. “Everyone knows that they will just postpone the deadline again, so why should I worry,” he asks, referring to the government’s original target date of July 31. Since the set-top boxes (STBs) had not yet been installed in the homes of more than 90 lakh of the 1.23 crore cable subscribers in the four metro cities, the government agreed to give the industry four more months to get its act together.

Mr. Lal says it is not his fault if consumers are not interested. “They have to buy the STB for Rs.800. And we still do not even know what the final channel rates will be under the new system... Of course, the STBs will be able to carry more number of channels, give them more choice.”

The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2011, was passed for the complete digitisation of cable TV in the country by the end of 2014, in four phases. The first phase involves the metros of Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata and makes it mandatory for customers to install the STBs in order to receive encrypted digital signals from the broadcaster through cable operators.

By the middle of last month, only 42 lakh STBs had been seeded (less than 35 per cent), and this has left a target of 11 lakh STBs to be installed a week to meet the October 31 deadline.

The government has marketed the shift as a move towards more choice for the consumer, as operators will have to carry 500 channels by January. In theory, the customer will be able to pay only for the channels he wants. (In practice, government officials and cable operators say, the bouquets of channels will be priced much more attractively than individual channels in an a la carte menu, meaning that consumers could end up paying for hundreds of channels they never want.) It will also bring more transparency to the system, as cable operators will not be able to underreport the number of subscribers, and thus underpay the broadcaster.

Broadcasters are understandably delighted, and were furious when the deadline was postponed. “We are disappointed with the extension...People are making their own excuses,” Sunil Lulla, Managing Director and Chief Executive of Times Television Network, had told The Hindu.

Multi system operators who receive the signal from the broadcaster and pass it on to the local cable operator (LCO) have been brought on board as well. “For the first phase [in the metros], investments [to go digital] were already done during the CAS implementation in 2006, and the additional cost is on the STBs which is bearable,” says Ashok Mansukhani, president of the MSO Alliance, and director of IndusInd Media, one of the largest MSOs. He says the MSOs are subsidising the actual cost of the STBs to the tune of Rs. 1,000, so that customers only have to pay Rs. 800 each.

He feels that the October 31 deadline can be met, if “some resistance from the LCOs and indifference from consumers” is addressed, noting that a “focus on customer delight will be the game changer for increased deployment.”

Even in a middle-class area like Vikaspuri, this indifference is apparent. At Raj Cable Network, technician Brijesh enters the office to pick up two more STBs for installation. “The channels are being switched off — sometimes sports, sometimes news — and that is forcing people to get an STB. Otherwise, why will they want to buy it,” he asks. Eight to 10 STBs are installed in the area every day, he says, not at the pace required to meet the deadline.

“When broadcasters switch off channels to force people to buy the STBs, this is called blackmail,” says K.K. Sharma, an adviser to the Cable Operators Federation of India. “Digitalisation is a good technology, but only if people can afford it and freely choose it. Nowhere in the world has the government ever forced the private cable industry to go digital. The switchover needs to come from the ground up, because of consumer demand. It should not be top-down enforcement.”

With broadcasters and cable operators still tussling over agreements on tariff rates and revenue-sharing, there is a lack of on-the-ground clarity, leaving consumers confused about what their monthly cable bill will look like. Mr. Mansukhani estimated that the fee would increase by Rs. 50 for the average consumer who now pays Rs. 180 per month.

The COFI warned that poorer subscribers — from slums and migrant labour communities — who now pay only Rs. 50 for only the free-to-air channels could be in for a rude shock.

The Central government is holding weekly monitoring meetings to sort out the glitches. Last week, Information and Broadcasting Secretary Uday Varma made it clear that no further delays would be allowed, telling stakeholders: “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.”

At the State level, the enthusiasm is muted. The governments of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra have all formally expressed their inability to meet the deadline.

Cable operators cite support for their position from Members of Parliament and believe that if a blackout is actually threatened, politicians will cut across party lines to stand with the man on the street.


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