Indians can soon opt for direct-to-home satellite TV

BANGALORE AUG. 10. Three years after the Indian Government legalised the beaming of television programmes via satellite, directly to viewers' homes, without the help of a cable operator, the option has finally become reality. As of this week there are two — possibly three — players geared to exploit the technology known as DTH — Direct To Home. One of them — a member of the Zee TV group — has promised to launch the service by September 1, if some procedural hurdles are cleared.

The development comes at a time when there is considerable confusion about the `other' method of delivering multi-channel television programming to the consumer: through cable and a conditional access system (CAS) set-top box. With this route rapidly turning into a veritable `chakravyuha' over which of the stakeholders, channel providers or distributors, should make how much money, customers might well be in the mood to accept an alternative method where they can say goodbye to their (un)friendly neighbourhood cable operators and deal directly with the content provider.

In the DTH system, the service provider bunches together a bouquet of channels and uplinks them from a broadcast head-end to a satellite on which one or more transponders have been hired.Around 10-12 channels can be transmitted from one transponder.Satellites used for DTH-type services usually work in what is known as the "Ku Band" of the electromagnetic spectrum of frequencies.

The advantage is that the dish antenna that the customer needs to install to catch the TV channels can be quite small — around 15-30 cm in diameter. This can be fixed on the roof or in a balcony though in many areas Ku band services can be picked up even by a dish placed on top of the television set.

Customers need to install a decoder — a circuit that unscrambles the signals picked up by the satellite dish — as well as a `smart card' provided by the service provider.

This is to ensure that only the channels paid for are unscrambled. In effect the decoder-smart card combo comes inside a `set top box' which looks very similar to the one being proposed for the Cable-CAS system.

Early Players

One satellite TV player who has always promised to bring DTH services to India is the Star TV group — not surprising since it runs Sky TV, the

DTH service in the U.K, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and many other countries. Hence, it is well experienced in this technology and has got all the bits and pieces in place. However, the group is currently trying to sort out with the Government, issues linked to how much Indian equity it has put into the company it has started for the purpose, Space TV. If and when it overcomes this hurdle it can be expected to launch DTH services fairly fast. The other private sector player to leap into the DTH `dish' is the Zee

TV group which also owns the SitiCable cable network. The group has said it is all set to offer DTH services having lined up four transponders (to deliver 48 channels) and booked others to offer about 144 channels in all.Its service is expected to cost Rs. 150 a month for starters, with the dish and the decoder/smart card box costing around Rs. 3,000. By DTH standards, Rs. 150 is a small price and possibly represents the bare minimum package.

On Friday, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry cleared the DTH plans of Doordarshan, which has set aside Rs. 165 crores for the purpose.

DD has asked the Indian Space Research Organisation to provide the required transponder on one of its INSAT satellite platforms. The attraction for the Government channels is that the `footprint' of the satellite based DTH transmission will reach most parts of the subcontinent at one go — including neighbouring nations. Its message will therefore reach beyond Indian borders, at no additional cost.

Both Zee and Doordarshan are likely to initially offer DTH receivers in areas that are too remote to receive TV signals from terrestrial transmitters and cable operators. For private players such as Zee or Star TV, it would not make commercial sense to launch the DTH option in areas where they have already established a customer base through the cable route.

But once the technology goes on stream, there is nothing to prevent a customer in Mumbai or Delhi from receiving the service — as long as someone has accepted a subscription and provided the decoder. This month's developments therefore hold out a very real possibility that before end 2003, some regions in India will finally see TV viewers receiving their programmes directly from a satellite.

In the interior areas, these are likely to comprise a selection of "free" channels aired by Doordarshan as a public service.

But in the metros, DTH may well offer better-off customers, a classy new way to get their daily dose of infotainment. And the way things are shaping in the other, CAS route, DTH may work out to be about the same price-wise.