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Govt sticks to new CAS deadline

BS Bureau in New Delhi | July 22, 2003 10:09 IST

Amid speculation over the fate of the conditional access system for cable television, the government today said it would go ahead with its staggered rollout in the four metros from September 1.

It promised steps to ensure the process would be consumer-friendly.

This was disclosed by Information and Broadcasting Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad after a two-hour, high-level meeting convened by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and attended by Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, Law Minister Arun Jaitley and BJP leaders Venkaiah Naidu, V K Malhotra and Madan Lal Khurana.

"We have to make it as consumer-friendly as possible," Prasad said, after his fourth meeting with the Prime Minister on the issue. He said CAS would be implemented zone-wise in the four metros as planned from September 1.

After listening to the apprehensions voiced by Delhi BJP leaders on a possible adverse impact of CAS on the Assembly elections later in the year, the information and broadcasting ministry has been asked to ensure that the price line is kept under control.

Meanwhile, the Cable Operators' United Front, which claims to have 25,000 members in the four metros alone, today said it would black out its services on Wednesday for three hours to press for a hike in the maximum rate for basic-tier services to Rs 180 to "save" the last-mile operator.

The meeting also took note of the suggestions of the standing committee on information technology chaired by Somnath Chatterjee.

The panel criticised the government for setting a date for the rollout without putting in place measures to ensure it was consumer-friendly.

The committee, which finalised its report before the CAS rollout was postponed from July 15 to September 1, was of the view that it should be deferred, if necessary.

Chatterjee said the staggered implementation was a "clear admission" by the government that it was not prepared for CAS.

"We want a smooth implementation so that the consumer does not face any problem. Certain steps have to be taken before the government sets a date," he told reporters.

The panel criticised the information and broadcasting ministry for not making efforts to espouse the possibility of indigenous production of set-top boxes.

It said even modest estimates of 2 million set-top boxes initially would cost the nation about Rs 600 crore (Rs 6 billion) in foreign exchange.

The report, submitted to the Speaker on July 16, said demand should be assessed and possibilities of indigenous manufacturing explored in a given timeframe.

It expressed concern over "inability" of the ministry to resolve key issues affecting the interests of cable and satellite viewers like inapplicability of set-top boxes in case a subscriber shifts residence, installing multiple set-top boxes for subscribers with more than one television set and a complaint redressal mechanism.

"There are no reliable figures on how many set-top boxes are needed, arrangement to procure them and their rates. There is a lot of uncertainty and the committee felt in such circumstances the date should not have been set," Chatterjee said.

The committee has also recommended an upward revision of the minimum number of free-to-air channels prescribed for the basic tier from 30 to 60 since this will be left to the cable operators.

Suggesting that the ministry ensure transparent pay channel rates to avoid bundling of channels by broadcasters, it says such rates should be notified to the public as early as possible so that they can decide whether to opt for set-top boxes or not.

The committee fails to share the ministry's optimism that a smooth rollout of CAS will be possible. It, therefore, recommends that the ministry meticulously monitor the availability of set-top boxes to avoid any blackout of pay channels.

It said the main aim was to ensure that cable subscribers were not worse off after the introduction of CAS.

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