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CAS huddle at Atal’s home

New Delhi, July 17: Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee today inquired about the implementation of the conditional access system for cable television amid fresh doubts whether the regime that will make set-top boxes mandatory to view pay channels is on schedule.

CAS is slated to roll out zone-wise in the four metros from September 1 but there is stiff opposition from both the ruling Congress and the BJP in Delhi, which goes to the polls later this year.

Vajpayee had given instructions that CAS should be implemented in a “consumer friendly” manner but the government is now uncertain whether it will be possible to cap subscription fees around Rs 200 for free-to-air and most of the pay channels.

Law, justice and company affairs minister Arun Jaitley and information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad met the Prime Minister at his home this evening.

“We discussed some legal issues. There is life beyond CAS,” Prasad said, when asked about the discussion. Asked if there was pressure from within the government and the party to defer or put CAS on hold, Prasad said: “No comment.”

Last week, the Prime Minister had asked Jaitley to look into the issues on CAS, Delhi BJP chief Madan Lal Khurana had claimed after a meeting with Vajpayee. Jaitley had left for Myanmar shortly after the meeting and returned to Delhi today.

A ministry source said successive discussions with the stakeholders in the cable television industry had led to the conclusion that there were weaknesses in the Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Act that has mandated CAS. These loopholes may have to be plugged with another amendment.

However, with the Parliament session due to start on Monday, it would be difficult to complete the paperwork by then. There was an element of urgency about this evening’s meeting because the Prime Minister will be away for the BJP national executive meeting in Raipur from tomorrow.

A decision to implement CAS after necessary legislation can lead to deferment and, effectively, a rollback of the programme.

Another ministry official today said Peter Mukerjea, head of broadcasting major STAR, had given an “assurance that STAR will come out with rates of pay channels and ensure a rollout of CAS”.

A clutch of foreign broadcasters, chiefly STAR, has been delaying announcement of pay-channel rates and throwing the schedule for CAS into disarray.

In a parallel development, an I&B official said the ministry was not satisfied with the replies given by STAR to its queries on the shell company, Media Content and Communication Services (MCCS).

The ministry is looking for more explanations from STAR on the credentials of the shareholders, details of the companies to which MCCS is outsourcing business and on the transfer of staff from one company to another.

MCCS, content provider for STAR News in which the broadcaster has a 26 per cent stake, has proposed to run its business in association with three other companies -- Touch Telecontent, Rent Works and Hughes Electronics -- but it has a “small” paid-up equity of Rs 1 lakh.

The ministry wants information on how a capital-intensive operation can be run on such a small equity base, the official said.

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