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Basics of the beam

QUESTIION OF ANSWERS

I am a Manthan subscriber. Why can't I see STAR channels'

It all started with STAR issuing a public notice in February warning Manthan subscribers that the network was liable for disconnection within a month over dues and contract renewal issues. Manthan claimed STAR was simply trying to create trouble for multi-system operators (MSOs) on the eve of its direct-to-home (DTH) launch. The matter reached the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT). On March 15, STAR switched off Manthan. The TDSAT case continues; so does the blackout.

I am a SitiCable subscriber. Why can't I see STAR channels'

Trouble had been brewing between STAR and SitiCable for some time, particularly regarding a dues dispute over Indian Cable Net, the RPG Enterprises-owned MSO bought over by SitiCable.

A few days after STAR switched off Manthan, SitiCable ' except a part in south Calcutta ' yanked the STAR feed off its network for 24 hours as a mark of protest against STAR's 'high-handedness', rendering around 70 per cent of the city cable homes STAR-less.

Though the beam returned to SitiCable after the token strike ended, it was suddenly taken off by the MSO from April 15 on the same 'high-handedness' grounds. The mandatory one-month public notice was not issued.

Another contentious issue for the two MSOs has been STAR's second bouquet of channels. A few months prior to the blackout, Manthan and SitiCable decided that they would not air STAR's second bouquet, comprising STAR One, Hungama and two Disney Channels. They claimed it was impossible to charge their subscribers more for the bouquet as viewers were not interested in these channels anyway.

So who is getting STAR channels in the city'

Those viewers fed by the MSO CableComm, a portion of SitiCable in south Calcutta called Purvalaya and some independent master control rooms, adding up to around 25-30 per cent of the 20-lakh cable households in the CMDA area. CableComm made its no-blackout stand clear during the 24-hour token strike by SitiCable in March. As did Purvalaya, despite being a unit of SitiCable.

What is STAR's stand'

STAR's message to MSOs is simple: pay up or face disconnection. After three-fourth of the city went off the beam on April 15, senior officials of the company rushed to the city to present their version of the story. They advised viewers to ask their operators to shift to other STAR-empowered networks or ask for the signal directly from the broadcaster. They also suggested that viewers approach TDSAT or Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), which doubles as the cable watchdog, with their grievances.

What are the operators saying'

Like any other issue in the cable industry, the STAR-Manthan-SitiCable tussle has divided the operators (and their unions). While some claim to be spearheading the battle against STAR on behalf of the MSOs, others argue that payment disputes of one MSO should not affect the entire industry. They also warn that such problems at regular intervals are only pushing the cable viewer to look for alternative platforms like DTH.

If STAR is off, how can I still see STAR Sports, STAR News, STAR Ananda'

STAR Sports and ESPN are part of a separate company called ESPN STAR Sports and has nothing to do with the STAR bouquet of channels. And the two news channels are free-to-air.

Why do I the consumer face so many blackouts and so much trouble'

Blame it on the problems of an unregulated industry. And with crores of money changing hands every month, a hugely lucrative one at that.

The biggest problem continues to be under-declaration by cable operators. For the 20 lakh households paying an average monthly subscription of Rs 175, broadcasters like STAR, Sony and Zee receive 'not even 20 per cent' of the money paid by the viewer to the cableman. Under-declaration is so rampant that broadcasters make deals with MSOs and operators on a 'paid subscription' figure that is far less than the actual number of subscribers.

It was in fact STAR, in an effort to check price hikes, that started a curious method of double-subscriber base declaration a few years back. The rates of the channels would go down by a few rupees but the cable operator would have to cough up double of the 'paid subscription' he had earlier agreed to, thereby legitimising under-declaration.

What is the government doing'

The state government has tried, from time to time, through means direct and indirect, to bring some order to the cable chaos. But till date it has found it far easier to rule the city for three decades than clean up an industry that is just over a decade old.

Take the much-touted cable census. It was supposed to provide the exact number of cable homes, which would serve as the means to fix rates and solve the under-declaration problem. A year has passed, but there is little to say on the progress of the project.

But at the end of a dispute day, it's still the powers-that-be that the cable players turn to. Case in cables-crossed point: whenever beam blackouts occur during Team India cricket matches or World Cup soccer, the ball is lobbed into the Writers' Buildings court.

What can we the viewers do'

Very little except mount pressure on the cable operators to offer the channels of your choice (with some decent service thrown in, please) or refuse the monthly payment for the switched-off channels. Every broadcaster has made the price of its channels public. Another option is to approach regulatory bodies like TDSAT and Trai, but they would be the long-drawn and hassle-filled options. The last resort ' look for an alternative platform like DTH.

What are the alternatives'

For the moment DTH, and in the near future Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). DTH has two existing players, Zee's dishtv and Doordarshan, with the STAR-Tata joint venture T-Sky scheduled to roll out on July 1. The viewer needs to buy a small ku-band dish antenna and a set-top box to receive the channels in crystal clear sound and video quality.

While Doordarshan's service is free ' viewers pay for the dish only ' it offers only free-to-air channels. Zee's dishtv charges a monthly subscription but does not offer the STAR or Sony channels. As soon as STAR launches T-Sky, this could change.

As for IPTV, at least one MSO in the city is carrying out feasibility studies. IPTV allows channels to be beamed through the Internet and carried to the user through copper wires or fibre optic cable. A set-top box will also be required in this case; monthly subscription is likely to be around Rs 300.

What about CAS'

Conditional Access System (CAS) is a means by which viewers can choose and pay for only the channels they want. If delivered properly, it can rid the cable industry of some of its ills. Delhi High Court, on March 10, had directed the Centre to roll out CAS within four weeks in the metros. The Centre, after meeting stakeholders like broadcasters, operators and MSOs, has sought 'six to eight' more months for CAS to be implemented.

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