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TV box' Even Sharad is foxed

New Delhi, July 1: The Union information and broadcasting ministry that is piloting the rollout of the conditional access system (CAS) for cable television is wondering if the set-top box regime will be self-defeating.

Talks with broadcasters and cable operators, that have continued over the past month and into this afternoon, have the ministry’s senior officials wondering if CAS will be consumer-friendly.

On May 24, the Prime Minister’s Office had summoned information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and his officials and “directed” them to ensure that “consumer interest is taken care of” while implementing CAS. Since then, the minister has held a flurry of meetings and discussions but his efforts willy-nilly get sabotaged either by sections of the cable television industry or by politicians in his own camp, such as Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Delhi BJP chief Madan Lal Khurana.

Prasad has said repeatedly that CAS will roll out on July 15, but last week’s entire exercise was concentrated on how to “soften” the blow, without alluding to a partial rollback.

To add to Prasad’s burden on CAS, Union minister for consumer affairs Sharad Yadav, quizzed by a consumer activist at a seminar this morning, exclaimed: “I have not seen a set-top box and do not know what it looks like. Since you people go abroad, you might have seen it there.”

The set-top box is at the core of the conditional access system and the ministry had projected that the equipment will be available in adequate numbers and at reasonable prices for viewers to unscramble pay channels. The ministry now anticipates a scarcity of the boxes. This afternoon, officials met representatives of set-top box manufacturers and suppliers to gauge their availability.

Ministry officials said the government was considering several options while rolling out CAS, such as “dual feeds” — an option that multi-system operators do not favour and cable operators say is not feasible — and area-wise debut in the four metros.

An area-wise rollout can mean that CAS will be applicable in separate but not all areas within a city. Even if this were technically possible in Delhi and Mumbai, the worst scenario is in Calcutta, where the cable networks are almost entirely analog. A dual feed, that would involve installation of new equipment at cable headends and unscrambling devices, can be available only on digital transmission and relay. The cables that carry television signals in India usually have bandwidths of 550 and 750 megahertz — not enough to carry all channels and even double feeds of the same signal.

The admission by the consumer affairs minister today — that he has little knowledge about set-top boxes and their availability — is just another instance of the information and broadcasting ministry’s efforts not having the desired effect.

Yadav did add that the government was committed to make CAS consumer-friendly but his own ignorance reflected poorly on the government line.

Cable operators’ representatives claimed after a meeting with Prasad today that they had told the government subscription rates would shoot up to over Rs 500 if CAS was not implemented. In a memorandum, they tabulated the rates of channels that showed it cost them Rs 530 to distribute channels currently.

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