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CAS chaos clouds rollout roster

New Delhi, July 15: The Centre’s notification on the rollout of the conditional access system (CAS) for cable television from September 1 has little meaning for viewers. The upshot is that the fundamental questions posed by cable television viewers — do they need to buy set-top boxes' from when' at what price' at what channel rates' — continue to go unanswered.

Sources in the information and broadcasting ministry said today that none of the steps that are required to be taken to make set-top boxes compulsory to view pay channels has been taken. Indeed, the most vocal supporters of the set-top box regime — the Delhi-based Cable Operators’ Federation of India (COFI) — today said it doubts if CAS will at all be implemented.

Against the background of the chaos over CAS and the absence of any idea in the government on just what the set-top box regime can mean to the consumer, information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was out of the capital today to attend RSS leader Rajendra Singh’s funeral.

It cannot be said with any degree of certainty that his presence makes a qualitative difference. Indeed, the government and instruments of official instruction — such as notifications — have lost their sanctity over CAS.

According to the first notification, CAS was to be implemented from today, July 15. That, of course, has not happened. Broadcasters were to come out with pay channel rates — according to another notification — a month earlier. That, again, has not happened. Then, there was to be a “honeymoon period” from August 1. Plans for that are in disarray.

COFI spokesperson Roop Sharma said operators will continue to charge subscriptions at current rates even from August. According to the agreement reached in the Prime Minister’s Office between different sections of the industry, it had been decided that the rate will be fixed at Rs 72 plus taxes in the month — the “honeymoon period” — immediately preceding the rollout.

The CAS drama being played outside government offices has put another spanner in the ministry’s works. Yesterday, Delhi BJP chief Madan Lal Khurana met the Prime Minister and urged that CAS be deferred in Delhi till after the Assembly polls due in November or else “the set-top box will become like onion”. He said drawing an analogy with the price hike of the vegetable that turned into a poll issue.

Today, Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit also said she was against the implementation of CAS because the government and citizens of Delhi were not convinced about the utility of set-top boxes.

Pay channel broadcasters were required to come out with rates by today. But this morning, Deepak Shourie of Discovery Networks and Manu Sawhney of ESPN met the additional secretary, information and broadcasting, Vijay Singh, and told him that the industry continues to be deeply divided and they were unable to quote new rates.

Despite the investment in CAS of over a hundred man-hours by the most important people entrusted with running the country — from the Prime Minister downwards — every facet linked with the implementation of CAS continues to be as disputed as ever — pricing of channels, rollout schedule, availability of set-top boxes and the demand for them, regulation of broadcasters and cable operators.

In Calcutta, an executive with Dalvi Technology, supplier of CAS to the city’s biggest multiple system operator, RPG Netcom, said their contract worth about Rs 10 crore was being executed. Lewis Zimbler, Dalvi’s business development manager, said they were installing the headends and supplying the software for RPG Netcom. Parts of south Calcutta have been notified as CAS areas from September 1.

In Mumbai, a spokesman for the MSO, Incablenet, V.C. Khare, said a total of 10,000 set-top boxes were immediately available but there was no demand.

Vikki Choudhary, an independent cable operator, claimed that MSOs had invested Rs 300 crore in backend infrastructure to manufacture and supply set-top boxes “but this can turn out to be money down the drain”.

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