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When consumers go out of focus

August 14, 2003

About a month and a half ago, a picture-blocking message was flashed on Star Sports and ESPN, saying that access to these channels would be blocked because IN Cable, the service provider for my locality, had not paid its dues. A day later, both channels went off the air.

Since then, every week, my service providers -- a two-man unit equipped with a cellphone and an office in a 3x6 scooter garage that Delhi Development Authority thoughtfully provides for residents of its housing colonies -- reassuringly says the service would be resumed in a day or two. Some weeks pass and nothing happens.

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There are several big tournaments scheduled that I don't want to miss, so I ask my service provider for IN Cable's telephone numbers to check the facts.

The number I am given is of a franchisee who operates out of a slightly larger hole in the wall in a nearby village. Clearly, the scooter garage outfit is a sub-franchisee.

The polite young man in the bigger franchisee confirmed that IN Cable does indeed owe the broadcasters money and he couldn't understand why it hadn't been paid.

Wait a day or two, he urges. I decide to stop going up the chain. It is clear that both parties are helpless. And since the demand for sports channels isn't all that great in Delhi, there's no need to pressure the primary cable operator to restore them.

A week later, nothing changes, so I change my franchisee -- maybe he is a sub-franchisee or a sub-sub franchisee. This evocatively named Exotic Cable Company is affiliated to WIN Cable.

It turned out to be a slightly larger outfit -- four men with two cellphones and a shanty office in another nearby village, but it offered me all the channels I watch, including ESPN and Star Sports.

In the four days since I have subscribed to Exotic's services for a princely sum of Rs 250 I have phoned them five times -- twice within an hour of getting the connection.

Not because I don't get the channels they promise but because their service has this distressing habit of breaking off right in the middle of a programme and only an irate phone call gets things going again.

And that is when they deign to keep their cellphones switched on. The trouble is, Exotic is the only other service provider in the area, so I'm pretty much stuck with them.

The point of this long story is that I'm ready to bet that every consumer suffers similarly at the hands of his or her franchisee (sub, sub-sub or otherwise).

In many cases the option of switching from one troublesome service provider to another does not exist. Like your newspaper vendor, he probably has a monopoly of that area.

This is the price consumers pay for the government allowing the unregulated growth of cable TV over a decade ago. The upshot is that cable TV services have become such a lucrative low-overheads, high-margin business that has been monopolised by powerful political interests and structured entirely to the service provider's benefit.

True Indian TV consumers can access more than 100 channels -- three quarters of which they probably never watch -- but this privilege comes at a pricing arbitrarily decided by near-monopolist local service providers and a quality of service that is criminally bad.

That is why the prospect of a conditional access system seemed so exciting at first. Imagine getting access to only the channels you want to watch and at a fixed price.

This excitement lasted only until I learnt that far from ridding me of the vagaries of my unfriendly neighbourhood cable operator in his hovel-like 'office' I'd continue to be dependent on him.

And he, in turn, would be dependent on a primary operator over whom he had no power.

What's more, going by the heated debate between the government, broadcasters and cable operators, I'll have to pay out approximately ten times more to rent a set-top box and pay for the channels I want.

The likes of Exotic do not encourage hope that I'll be able to watch uninterrupted TV happily ever after in a post-CAS era.

This must be so patently obvious to anybody who watches cable and satellite TV that it defies understanding why the government should be pushing for CAS.

It turns out that broadcasters are unhappy because cable operators routinely do not reveal their full subscription lists and therefore underpay them for their services.

This also means that the government ends up collecting less tax. CAS technology can apparently put an end to this. Now, it appears, even this need not be the case since the dated technology being introduced in India -- a scandal in itself -- makes it easy for cable operators to pirate the signals going into the set-top boxes.

The fact that the deadline for implementing CAS has been breached once should tell the government something. True, the current system is not perfect but surely the choice for consumers should not lie between cheaper and expensive thuggery but better quality service.

The controversy over CAS -- as with those over value added tax and wireless telecom technology -- shows that policy-makers have still to understand that it is the consumer who should be at the centre of decision-making, not vested interests.

That, after all, should be the point of liberalisation, shouldn't it?

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