For the past 15 months, the nation has been held to ransom for lack of clarity and information on the conditional access system.
Neither the government, the broadcasters nor the multi-system operators have come forward with a transparent agenda for the people.
There have been dozens of seminars and conferences on CAS, with lobbies for and against it. Even this writer had, and has, opposing views on CAS in its current format.
CAS is excellent for India provided the mandate calls for open architecture boxes with a digital terrestrial tuner built in. First, it is incorrect to hold discussions on set-top boxes without the software to implement CAS.
Factually, there are only a few major players in the CAS arena worldwide and it is correct to say that the proposed technology for India was developed years ago when the chips used in the STBs lacked adequate processing power.
It is well documented that since the advance of technology, these old systems have been hacked into, thereby leading to cable piracy -- the very reason the government proposed CAS in the first place.
Each time CAS is hacked into and hijacked, the major CAS players recommend changing all the smart cards. Since they form a virtual cartel, they command high royalties which are deemed payable on volumes.
Each time the smart card is replaced, the subscriber is billed and taking into consideration the ground monopolies enjoyed by our local cable operators, an entire area of a few thousand homes will have to be changed simultaneously. Disadvantage: We The People.
People are known to own cable television networks that range from 500 to 1,00,000 cable TV homes. CAS has the potential to send personalised messages to individual STBs.
In the event of a cable network having anti-national sentiments or connections, secret messages can be sent across for disruptive activities. The government with its powers can intercept phone calls and electronic and paper messages, but will not have the ability to prevent CAS misuse.
In order to prevent abuse and misuse of CAS, it will need to have all the source codes and access to the various gateways in the CAS network.
Will the powerful cartel of CAS manufacturers permit this?
Not in a million years as their business models and longevity of their corporations depend on these source codes. Disadvantage: India and We The People.
Going back to news reports of the past year, it is startling to learn that Doordarshan has spent hundreds of crores in deploying digital terrestrial transmission in India which means that one needs an STB to view the channels.
Given that this is a public fact, would it not have been prudent for the government to mandate that all CAS STBs have a DTT tuner built in to facilitate Doordarshan's broadcasting efforts?
After all, Doordarshan has been here for decades serving the nation.
The Indian market is virgin in the CAS and STB world, hence it is prudent to use advanced technology thereby reducing the cost of STBs.
The chips nowadays have higher processing power and the encrypting technologies used for Internet banking and other applications can be applied to STBs.
This technology is standard and open source, therefore free from any royalty, which in turn will make CAS more secure and available at a lower price.
The President of India has called on the nation to use open source software as far as possible so that technology offerings can be made available to the masses. It is just like the Linux versus Windows debate -- price, quality, reliability and speed, that's the way technology evolves.
CAS based on open source software will require smart cards adhering to the stringent standards laid out in the Information Technology Act 2000.
This will positively shape the industry and will make STBs available off the shelf across India and not only through the MSOs.
Since smart cards will adhere to the Information Technology Act 2000, the government's mandate of addressability, security and transparency in the consumers' interest will be served.
The STBs will become portable across systems, thereby becoming just like any appliance and not a proprietary monopolistic device, reducing the subscriber's dependence on the cable operator and the MSO.
On the other hand, for direct-to-home services, the government has suggested the use of open architecture boxes because the encryption technology deployed is secure.
There are a few indigenous companies that have developed STBs using the latest chips with open source encryption technologies like DES (Data Encryption Standard), AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and RSA where the smart cards adhere to the stringent standards of the Information Technology Act 2000.
Since these boxes are technology driven, they can also be used for Internet access on television, thereby taking affordable broadband to the masses.
These indigenous companies should be encouraged by way of duty drawbacks as they lower the end cost of STBs just as the government has slashed import duty on dated technology.
For CAS to be successfully implemented, scientifically planned networks, call centre support and after sales service are required.
Today, urban India's CATV networks are haphazardly laid overhead and no basic quality of service standards is offered.
CAS has been postponed time and again and the government must realise that the business model be first defined before they roll out CAS subject to these norms:
- The technology for CAS must be open source adhering to the stringent standards of the Information Technology Act 2000.
- Domestic manufacturers of indigenous CAS STBs be given duty drawback making it a level playing field for imported old technology boxes.
- All STBs must have a minimum processing power of 150 Mhz CATV distribution must be licensed like any developed and developing nation where the subscribers have the right to choose their service.
The writer is CEO, Gryphon Consulting and Gryphon Strategic Marketing.