Watching television will no longer be the same again. Bad transmission quality, blackouts, disconnection of channels, high cable bills -- all these could soon be history.
With Conditional Access System slated to take off in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata from January 1, television viewers will have a good bouquet of channels to opt for. What's more, you need to pay for only those channels you would like to watch.
What is CAS?
CAS stands for conditional access system, which is a digital mode of transmitting TV channels trough a set-top box (STB). The transmission signals are encrypted and viewers need to buy a set-top box to receive and decrypt the signal. The STB is required to watch only pay channels, not free-to-air channels, like Doordarshan.
The CAS Bill and what it means
In the new system, Indian broadcasting companies will decide which channels would be 'non-pay' (free-to-air) and which would be 'pay'. The viewer will now be able to select the pay channels he wishes to watch and pay for only these. Each broadcasting channel will determine the rates for buying the channel.
Currently, there is no segregation and subscribers pay a blanket rate for the entire service. There will soon be two levels of segregation. The first will be a broad differential according to lower, middle and upper classes of society across cable households.
The second differential will be amongst pay channels, like premium channels, which will include focused news, entertainment, sports, music channels and niche channels like nature, health and fashion.
When was it first proposed in India?
The idea of CAS was mooted in 2001, which was followed by a furore over charge hikes by channels and subsequently cable operators. It was decided that it would be first introduced in the four metros. It has been in place in Chennai since September 2003.
According to estimates, only 25 per cent of the people have subscribed the new technology. The rest watch only free-to-air channels. The inhibiting factor is the cost of the STB.
What is a set-top box? How much does it cost?
The set-top box is the device that enables a subscriber view pay channels. This instrument decodes signals from the cable operator for viewing a pay channel. It can also monitor the number and duration of channels viewed by the subscriber.
Analog STBs cost between Rs 3,000-3,500, while digital STBs cost 5,500 to 7,000.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (which also regulates India's cable television regime) has asked cable TV service providers in CAS areas to offer digital set-top boxes on a monthly rental scheme of Rs 30 and a refundable security deposit of Rs 999.
Subscribers will also have another option of not paying any security deposit but the monthly rental will be higher at Rs 45 per STB.
For analogue boxes, the rent will be Rs 23 per month per STB. Multi-system operators, like Hathway, now plan to give out STBs to their subscribers at a nominal rental of Rs 1 per day. If you change your address, you may have to go in for a new MSO who covers your new location.
Will CAS be cheaper than cable TV?
Yes, according to a TRAI order, if one opts for all the existing channels then the pay out will be less. For example, the Star bouquet at present comes for Rs 67 for eight channels. Under CAS, if one avails all the eight channels then the pay bill will be Rs 40 plus a 12.2 per cent service tax. The new tariff order will reduce the cable bills in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.
What will be the pricing of channels under CAS?
Broadcast regulator TRAI has fixed a ceiling of Rs 5 per pay channel per month under the CAS regime, much to the disappointment of broadcasters.
TRAI has fixed Rs 77 cap on pricing of free-to-air channels. It has also laid out easy norms for procurement of set-top boxes, which enable a subscriber to access pay channels in a CAS regime.
Under CAS, a subscriber can access to around 22 pay channels apart from the free-to-air bouquet within the Rs 200 package monthly. However, broadcasters and multi-system operators can offer a bouquet of channels, and discounts. One month's notice to subscribers before conversion of a free-to-air channel to pay channel or vice versa is needed.
Advantages of CAS
For viewers: Under, CAS viewers can watch only what they would like to watch, than what the cable operator has on offer. Subscribers save money they now spend on unnecessary channels. They will get better transmission (because of the use of optic fibre instead of metal cables). The cable operators will no longer have any control over the pricing of channels.
For broadcasters: It benefits broadcasters as they always had to grapple with the issue of cable operators not declaring the actual number of subscribers, and hence suffering losses. With CAS, they can find out the exact number of subscribers with a cable operator.
For cable TV operators: They need to pay a part of the subscription fees to the broadcasters only for the actual number of end users who opt for the channel. This allows operators to price their channels according to their popularity.
For advertisers: It gives a far more accurate indicator of programme popularity with only the actual subscribers of each channel being accounted for.
So why has there been opposition to CAS?
Consumer activists were essentially opposed to the high cost of the STB. If more people subscribe to CAS nationwide, the prices would come down. There were also apprehensions about fees being charged for the bouquet of channels instead of individual channels. The latest ruling from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has struck down bouquet-wise pricing.
In simple terms, a person who wants to want only watch Star News, for example, will no longer have to buy the Star bouquet, comprising, Star Movies, Star World, Star One etc.
Activists are also seeking a limit on the duration of advertising on air. Cable operators are opposed to CAS because they become redundant and even if that didn't happen, they can no longer understate the real number of subscribers and cheat the government of entertainment tax.
Service providers are opposed because they have to set up new digital machinery for CAS and may even have to share the price of the STBs, to avert competition from direct-to-home transmission.
What are the alternate options now?
The alternatives is DTH, a broadband transmission, which is more expensive. The latest TRAI order, which limits the fee per channel per cable connection to Rs 5 (exclusive of taxes) is the consumers' best bet.
What is DTH?
DTH stands for Direct-To-Home television. DTH is defined as the reception of satellite programmes with a personal dish in an individual home.
DTH services were first proposed in India in 1996. But they did not pass approval because there were concerns over national security and a cultural invasion. In 1997, the government even imposed a ban when the Rupert Murdoch-owned Indian Sky Broadcasting (ISkyB) was about to launch its DTH services in India.
Finally in 2000, DTH was allowed. The new policy requires all operators to set up earth stations in India within 12 months of getting a license.
DTH licenses in India will cost $2.14 million and will be valid for 10 years. The companies offering DTH service will have to have an Indian chief and foreign equity has been capped at 49 per cent. There is no limit on the number of companies that can apply for the DTH license.
Who are the DTH operators in India?
Zee group promoted Dish TV was the first to start DTH operations in India. The latest entrant in India is Tata-Sky is a joint venture between the Tata group and News corporation's Star TV.
What is the DTH pricing?
Tata-Sky offers 58-channels to consumers at an introductory offer of Rs 200 per month. You will have to pay Rs 3,999 for hardware (set-top box and installation), and a monthly charge of Rs 200.
Zee group's Dish TV offers its hardware and installation at Rs 3,000 (excluding taxes) and three months' free subscription. This Dish TV package of 75 channels costs Rs 180 per month.
DTH providers justify the prices as it offers high quality transmission which makes TV viewing a pleasant experience. Dish TV also offers other packages.
The second DTH operator is government-owned DD-Direct Plus. This comes at a one-time cost of Rs 2,000-2,500.
What are the concerns over DTH?
In the absence of regulation, DTH operators may hike their fees arbitrarily. They may force consumers to pay for bouquets of channels, instead of individual channels. Also there could be illegal redistribution of DTH feed through multiple distribution units, amounting to evasion of tax.
DTH versus CAS
DTH does not compete with CAS. Cable TV and DTH are two methods of delivery of television content. CAS is integral to both the systems in delivering pay channels.
Cable TV is through cable networks and DTH is wireless, reaching direct to the consumer through a small dish and a set-top box. Although the government has ensured that free-to-air channels on cable are delivered to the consumer without a set-top box, DTH signals cannot be received without the set-top box.
Besides, the monthly subscription cost for DTH and CAS on cable will vary. While you can opt for a number of channels in CAS, under DTH you have a limited choice depending on the package you opt for. The quality of the broadcast will be of high quality with big players in the fray.
DTH versus cable TV
In DTH, TV channels would be transmitted from the satellite to a small dish antenna mounted on the window or rooftop of the subscriber's home. So the broadcaster directly connects to the user.
DTH can also reach the remotest of areas since it does away with the intermediate step of a cable operator and the wires (cables) that come from the cable operator to your house.
DTH offers better quality picture than cable TV. This is because cable TV in India is analog. Despite digital transmission and reception, the cable transmission is still analog. DTH offers stereophonic sound effects.
Apart from enhanced picture quality, DTH has also allows for interactive TV services such as movie-on-demand, Internet access, video conferencing and e-mail. DTH will not be able to be an alternative to cable if the initial investment is more than that for cable. DTH requires initial investment for both a dish antenna and a TV-top box.
Will Star channels be available on Dish TV and Zee channels on Tata-Sky?
Dish TV offers Star channels. But Tata Sky is yet to offer Zee channels. On July 14, 2006, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal asked Star TV to allow Dish to broadcast all Star channels. The telecom tribunal also asked Star TV to make available all its channels for not more than Rs 27 per subscriber on the Dish TV platform.
Star had earlier demanded Rs 67 per subscriber for some of its channels. But the pricing issue is yet to be sorted out. Tata Sky includes all the channels from the Star, Sony Discovery One Alliance bouquets as well as ESPN Star Sports and two channels of NDTV.
Any other concerns?
Consumer activists are fighting for choice of channel selection, bargaining power and transparent taxation.