The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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3 days left, TV box in mess

New Delhi, Aug. 28: Q: Do you have to buy a set-top box to view pay channels on cable television from Monday'

A: The answer, if you live in Calcutta, is “Don’t know”; if you live in Mumbai, the answer is “Most probably not”; in Chennai, “Maybe” and in Delhi “No”.

“I think what we will have is a half-glass full, half-glass empty kind of situation,” a senior information and broadcasting ministry official said today when asked if the conditional access system for cable television will roll out from September 1 in Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai. It has been deferred in Delhi.

Officials in the information and broadcasting ministry have told their boss, Ravi Shankar Prasad, that CAS would be near impossible to implement now that it has been deferred in the capital. On his part, at a public forum yesterday, Prasad insinuated that he was misled by officials.

After months of meetings by the Prime Minister and the deputy Prime Minister, after hefty concessions for import duties for set-top boxes from the finance minister and an investment by Prasad of three-quarters of his time and energy since he took over as the information and broadcasting minister, the powers do not know if CAS will roll out.

It is three days to the second deadline set by the government for itself. This would rank as a colossal failure of governance but for the fact that administering cable television cannot rank very high on a list of national priorities.

Additional secretary Vijay Singh and joint secretary Rakesh Mohan who returned to Delhi after talks in Calcutta were told by Bengal government officials that there is a case to defer CAS by two to three months. The Bengal government is also understood to have told the I&B ministry that it has not been taken into confidence at every step.

The I&B officials found the state government well-versed on the system but admit it is true that state governments’ concurrence was not sought when the cable act was framed. Officials also talk of amending the act and leave the execution of CAS to state governments at a later date.

In Mumbai, where Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray has repeated his opposition to CAS, the ministry is almost certain that the regime cannot be rolled out.

They are not as certain in Calcutta and Chennai. In Calcutta, the officials found the multi-system operators equipped for the regime. One MSO told them that there were advance bookings for 5,000 set-top boxes for September against an estimated demand of 17,000. Bookings in Mumbai are around the 8,500 mark. These figures barely touch the tip of the cable TV market.

The upshot of the prolonged negotiations and the wranglings is that cable operators are now threatening to hike subscription fees.

Ministry officials admit that in such a scenario the government is not armed to put a cap on cable prices.

“One feels a bit shaky doing anything now,” one official said. Top of the mind for the ministry now is how to give some comfort to MSOs who have collectively invested between Rs 250 and Rs 200 crore in importing boxes and installing backend equipment.

The ministry is already preparing for life after a CAS-that-isn’t.

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