Go digital or go blank is the tagline of the aggressive advertisement drive undertaken by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) in a bid to urge people to switch over from analogue to digital TV. The first phase of the digitisation drive included the four metro cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkatta and Chennai. The deadline set was October 31 and as expected, there was last minute scrambling with certain stakeholders requesting for an extension. While Chennai was granted a breather as the high court extended the deadline for a few days, the other metros had to tow the line. Earlier, we had reported about the problems that plagued the digitisation drive, where the lack of awareness among the consumers, mismanagement and the issue of the consumer being charged arbitrarily for the set-top boxes (STBs) by the local cable operators came to the fore. Now past the deadline, the conversion rate still isn’t 100 percent, with many consumers facing blackout. While those who have embraced the digital medium are happy with the bump in the picture quality, they are clearly expecting more. With digital cable TV, the field is now wide open, with both the cable operators as well as the DTH operators trying to lure the consumers. We spoke to key stakeholders, representative from DTH and cable operators as well as with consumers, to find out the present scenario.
Delay in STB installation and deadline extension
The original deadline for the four metros to switch over to cable TV digitisation was July 1, 2012, which got extended to October 31, 2012. Anil Parab, head of the MCOA and Shiv Sena Member of Legislative Council, has been asking for further extension up to December 31, 2012. Parab firmly states that they aren’t opposing digitisation, but need some more time to install STBs and sort out other issues. He says, "The penetration of STBs isn’t complete yet and round 4-5 lakh households could be facing a TV blackout. There is a shortage of set-top boxes, as they are not built here and are procured from China. It’s not easy to make set-top boxes available in several lakhs of house within stipulated period of time. Also, a person can fix roughly 20 to 25 boxes per day. Besides this some SOs haven’t settled their revenue sharing issues, like what is the role of a Multi System Operator (MSO), distributor and so on. All this is yet to be decided.” He also points out the fact that there are many families that just cannot afford to pay the entire amount in one stroke.
On the other hand, some cable operators seem to be ready with the switchover with almost all their customers owning a set-top box. One such cable operator is WinCable. Ramesh, PRO, WinCable says, “99 percent of our customer base have been provided with set-top box. Our areas include Khar, Bandra and Santacruz. We do not offer any packages or additional benefits, the rate is the same we charged for cable TV that is Rs. 300 per month. The installation charges are 1200.”
Shortage of set-top boxes
Amidst the hullabaloo of the imposed cable TV digitisation, consumers are left with no choice but to install an STB so that they can get their daily fix of entertainment. The process of conversion wasn’t exactly a smooth affair. Procurement of set-top boxes seemed to be a major issue, with many consumers having had to endure a long wait. And post the October 31 deadline, many of them faced blackout for no fault of theirs. A resident of Andheri had to haplessly wait for his set-top box, “Even past the deadline, I hadn’t received my set-top box and the cable operator has no idea when he can provide me one. After the deadline, I didn’t have cable TV, but the operator had given us illegal access for a temporary period. I had planned to wait for a few more days for the set-top box, and decided that if I don’t get it, then maybe I will opt for DTH. But after a wait of around a month, I finally received my set-top box.” He is not the only one, there are many who are yet to receive the set-top box post the deadline and are watching TV with a temporary illegal connection. A resident of Borivali is one such customer who is finally opting for DTH after waiting for more than a month.
On the other hand, those who got the set-top box seem to be happy with the services. Some of them didn’t face any trouble at all. A consumer from Mankhurd, Central Mumbai, who opted for set-top box says, “I got my set-top box for Rs. 1000 with a waiting time of just two days. I opted for a package of Rs.200 that gives me around 150 channels. Definitely the picture quality is better than what it was and I am quite happy with it. Overall I think Rs. 200 is a good deal, but there are no HD channels in this package.” A customer from Kurla is extremely happy with the cable TV digitisation as it has solved his issue of low signal. “I can now view clearer picture and also change the audio language to ‘Hindi’ for select channels. And the best part is I got the set-top box for Rs. 850 and installed it myself in 15 minutes flat. No waiting period and no hassle whatsoever.”
Another consumer from Andheri-East had already got the set-top box a couple of years ago from the local cable operator, Digicable, for free as a promotional offer. He gets about 400 channels for monthly Rs. 250 and has seen some improvement in the picture quality.
Long wait for the STBs, but happy with cable TV digitisation
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) has issued some guidelines for the operators to follow. Most consumers are unaware of these guidelines. Some of the important ones are listed below:
- `Basic service tier’ means a package of free-to-air channels provided by a multi system operator/cable operator, which can be viewed without any set-top box attached to the television set and the Basic Service Tier Charge is single price payable by the subscribers to the local cable operator for such package consisting of Free to Air channels. The TRAI vide its order dated 31.8.2006 has provided that the maximum amount that a multi system operator/cable operator can demand for receiving programmes transmitted in the basic service tier cannot exceed Rs.77/- per month (excluding taxes) for a minimum of 30 FTA channels. Thus, cable operators cannot arbitrarily decide on the monthly subscription fee except as provided, which will include prices fixed for the basic tier plus the price for the pay channel depending on the number of channels subscribed plus monthly rental for the Set Top Box Scheme you have opted for and applicable taxes. The prices will be uniform throughout the CAS notified area.
- The Tariff Order issued by TRAI mandates that the pay channels will be offered on a-la-carte basis by the broadcasters/multi system operator and Cable operator. A-la-carte basis means that the pay channels will be offered individually with a maximum retail price for each channel fixed by the broadcasters within the ceiling of Rs 5 per channel per month. Bouquets of pay channels can also be offered only in addition to the a-la-carte offer and not otherwise, and the right to choose will remain with the subscriber.
- In cases of malfunction of your STB, your MSO/LCO has been mandated to arrange for repair/replacement at no extra cost within 24 hours of receipt of complaint.
- You have been enabled to change your choice of pay channels at any time subject only to the rider that a choice once indicated will have to be paid for at least four months.
The complete guidelines as well as information about the nodal officers in charge for each zone in case of complaints can be accessed from here.
Digital TV vs DTH
The government ordinance of mandatorily converting your old cable line into a digital box has two key benefits – increased number of channels and high quality viewing. So, your local cable operator will now offer up to 300 channels and the picture quality will be spruced up for an enhanced viewing experience. Just like the DTH operators, your cable operators will have packages so that you can choose or pay only for the desired channels. Anil Parab states that cable operators will be offering services at par with DTH, be it packages, pricing, HD channels, Internet services, combo offers and more.
G Subramaniam, Chief Financial Officer, Hathway Cable & Datacom Ltd, also points out some benefits of digitisation. He says, “Digitisation will be clearly a positive change for everyone, especially the consumers. While the overall objective is to make the subscribers addressable, it will also result in wider choice of products and services. Digital cable services will also give consumers the opportunity to resolve some of the issues they have faced with legacy analogue cable systems. Digitisation would provide a bonanza for consumers in terms of picture quality, availability of a wide range of channels and freedom of choice for selection of channels. Customers would certainly benefit given that they would get access to more number of channels with a small additional investment towards buying a set‐top‐box, the cost of which is already subsidised. Digitisation aims to correct this anomaly and put the power back into the hands of the consumer.”
Digitisation is a boon to consumers who can now enjoy better quality picture at an affordable cost. At this point in time, digital cable TV is cheaper than DTH as many of the operators are offering all the channels for an average of Rs. 300 a month. Additionally, the consumers can also opt for individual channels a-la-carte, select only the ones that they want and pay only for those. However, now even the DTH operators have started providing a-la-carte option. This will be beneficial for the consumers who won’t have to face the hassles of choosing from the number of packages, where they invariably end up paying for the channels they don’t want just because it’s a part of the package. Compared to these packages, the deal offered by cable operators, where consumers on an average have to shell out around Rs. 300 per month and get all the channels, is far more lucrative. Having said that, DTH has an edge when it comes to quality and not to forget the HD channels.
Also, with DTH you don’t have to worry about your connection when you are shifting residence, as you can carry the set-top box with you wherever you go and your operator will connect it for you. Your account, choice of plan, etc. remains unchanged. Unfortunately, in case of digital cable, the set-top box is on rent and you will get the ownership only after a period of five years. If you shift residence in the meantime, then you will have to return the set-top box to your cable operator and you will get some refund amount. You will have to contact the local cable operator in the new locality to get a new connection. Here again, the services and the charges will vary. Another area where DTH currently scores over digital cable are things like the ability to record shows, switch languages, schedule for the week, synopsis and even things like online payment and 24x7 customer service. Also, the additional channels like game, active learning, cooking, science, spirituality, etc. provided by DTH operators are quite popular. It will be sometime before the cable operators are able to match-up to the services provided by DTH operators. However, it’s a work in progress and a few of the cable operators have already started providing language switching options along with additional movie and entertainment channels.
DTH or Digital TV, which one is better?
This is what will provide a window of opportunity for the DTH operators to lure in more customers, Mr. Shashi Arora, CEO-DTH/Media, Bharti Airtel, explains, “With the onset of digitisation, the operators will compete on value added services given that the number of channels and its content would remain the same.The number of customers shifting to digital TV from analogue has been witnessing a growing momentum due to the digitisation drive across the four metros and as a leading DTH player in the industry, Airtel DTH gets 25 percent of all new customers that join the DTH bandwagon every month. The forthcoming second phase of digitalisation scheduled for March 31, 2013 for 38 cities will provide a greater opportunity for DTH operators. The population of over 1 million households with a projected analogue market of 20 million in these cities will provide a further impetus to industry.”
Did you get your set-top box quickly or had to wait for a long period? Do you see a change in the picture quality and other benefits? So, how was your overall experience with the switchover – smooth or ruffled?