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Buck pass in beam war

Conventional wisdom says consumer is king. Traditional trade talk says it's a buyer's market. Try telling that to a cable consumer denied the basic service he is paying for.

If yours is one of the 18 lakh-odd cable and satellite homes in the CMDA area, chances are you do not receive many of the 50-plus pay channels on air and your favourite sports and soaps do the disappearing act before you can say Sachin or Jassi.

As the viewer sees it, the argument is simple: Why am I paying every month for a beam that doesn't reach my box'

THE MONEY CHAIN

First, let's take the money trail. The monthly amount (anything between Rs 80 and Rs 350) you pay reaches your neighbourhood cableman, who has an average declaration of 15 per cent.

This means, if he connects and collects money from 100 households, only the amount for 15 of them is passed on to the multi-system operator (MSO). In money terms, under-declaration allows the operator to retain an average of Rs 100 per subscriber as profit.

Assuming 50,000 households don't pay, with 1.75 million homes forking out an average of Rs 175, the cash amount generated every month is Rs 30 crore, no less.

Of this, broadcasters collectively receive only Rs 5 to 5.5 crore. The remaining amount drops off at various levels and forms a floating cash pool for political and other power players to dive in. 'In no other industry are you denied payment for the goods you provide. Add to that administrative bullying in a crunch situation, and doing business in Bengal becomes almost non-viable,' says a broadcaster.

Though most MSOs claim they are 'clearing houses', often, thanks to their deals with operators and broadcasters, they manage to stay afloat.

But the crib point is similar: 'Caught between operator under-declaration and broadcaster pressure, with police and politicians adding to the chaos, a service provider is in a lose-lose situation,' says an MSO.

From where the consumer sits, flipping through blank or unwanted beam, the fact is that the money he is paying every month is not reaching its desired destination.

So, the service that is his due is disrupted, either by the broadcaster arm-twisting the MSO or the MSO pressuring the cableman or the last-mile operator crying foul'

WHY SWITCHOFFS

Simply put, lack of regulation. Unlike electricity or basic and cellular phone service, there is neither fixed tariff nor a set standard of service.

Since end-November 2004, around 80 per cent of the city has been without ESPN and STAR Sports, after the broadcaster switched off MSO Indian Cable Net (formerly RPG Netcom) over payment problems, and another, Manthan, followed suit in solidarity.

In April last year, Indian Cable Net (doubling as distributor for STAR and Sony channels) had blocked beam on rival MSO SitiCable for incorrect declaration and dues.

Under-declaration, mounting outstandings and migration of errant operators are the micro-issues at the core of the cable dispute. In the blame game that ensues, it's impossible for the consumer to find out who is telling the truth, and how much.

Payment credit periods by each link in the broadcaster-MSO-operator chain to the next, further complicates matters. Price and subscriber-base declaration-hikes also ensure dharna, demonstration and, at the very least, a beam block.

To be concluded

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