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CAS is coming! But will the viewers benefit?
Saikat Chakraborty in New Delhi |
May 26, 2003 11:14 IST
Come July and Conditional Access System would start working in the four metros. But will viewers, whose supposed benefit was the fulcrum used by the government to push through the CAS Bill in Parliament, actually gain from it?
While consumer action groups have generally welcomed the system, they say loopholes in it will have to be plugged if its real benefits are to reach the viewers after July 14, the deadline for the implementation of CAS in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.
Some like the Consumer Guidance Society of India have, however, outrightly denounced the system, saying it is "totally anti-consumer".
"The consumer will be the worst hit in the current form of CAS regulation. He will have to invest a lot of money and pay a lot more in monthly fees, but receive a lot less number of channels," says Anand Patwardhan, chairman, CGSI.
A bit too harsh reaction, feel other groups.
Akhila Sivadas, executive director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research and a member of the first Task Force set up by the government on CAS, says the system was envisioned with the consumer in mind, to ensure that he does not have to pay for channels he does not watch and is protected from arbitrary hikes in cable fees.
Under CAS, a viewer will have to buy a set-top box and connect the cable wire through it to his television set if he wants to watch pay channels. He will be able to subscribe only to those channels that he wants to watch.
At present, most broadcasters supply a bouquet of channels to the viewers and charge for all of them. For example, the Star TV bouquet includes channels like Star Plus, Star Sports, Star News, Star Movies and so on. So even if the viewer watches only Star Plus, he has to pay for all the other channels. Under CAS, he can choose to subscribe just to Star Plus.
Besides, the government has mandated that post-CAS, the cable operator will have to provide at least 30 free-to-air channels for a monthly subscription of Rs 72 plus taxes, a total of a little over Rs 100. These channels can be seen without an STB.
The catch is the high price of the STB, from Rs 3,000 for an analog device to upto Rs 8,000 for a digital one that the viewer will have to buy if he wants to continue watching pay channels. Moreover, if a viewer chooses to keep on watching all the channels that are available on his television today, he will have to shell out more than Rs 400 per month, says Patwardhan.
But Sivadas says it is better to suffer some initial inconvenience than surrender to the strong-arm tactics of the cable operators and broadcasters. "In fact, CAS was taken up to put an end to the frequent and arbitrary hikes in monthly fees that cable operators have been making in the past years by putting the blame on broadcasters for increasing their rates," she says.
"This is an industry where there is a virtual monopoly in the area of cable distribution and so price capping was the only solution," says Anjali Bansal, a researcher at Consumer Unity and Trust Society, a consumer forum active on CAS.
Sivadas says that many people may not want to go for the pay channels even if they can afford the STBs. "The FTA channels will have a generous mix of entertainment, news, children's programs and music ... many may feel that these are enough for them."
"The best part is that many pay channels may turn FTA in a bid to reach more viewers," says Bansal.
The trend is already visible. Star News, the first Indian news channel to turn pay channel, is now available in both pay and free-to-air modes.
One factor that consumer groups are worried about is the reported move by some broadcasters to re-introduce bundling of channels through the back door.
"While the government has mandated that rates be declared for each channel separately, some of the pay channels are likely to offer single channels at very high prices, but make a bundle or a bouquet just a little more expensive on a cumulative basis," says Bansal.
"Naturally, viewers will be tempted to go for the bouquet. This move will defeat the basic purpose of CAS."
For the moment, however, there is no redressal forum that they can turn to if they face such problems or if cable operators charge more than the amount fixed by the government or provide poor service.
The lack of a redressal body is one of the major loopholes of CAS, feels Sivadas. Suggests Bansal, "The government needs to provide for an independent regulator, which will ensure proper standards of service and performance and price capping."
But even more than this, the problem that viewers are immediately facing is a dearth of information about CAS. Complaints are already coming in from viewers who allege that they are being fleeced by cable operators because of their lack of adequate knowledge about the system, says Sivadas.
"The government has a moral responsibility to take the public into confidence in the matter. If it can release full-page advertisements on its achievements, can it not release one which describes CAS in detail?" she asks.
For the viewers, it seems, the expectations from Conditional Access System may take a long time to be fulfilled.