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Small screen choices

The couch potato couldn’t have asked for more. More and more direct-to-home (DTH) operators are foraying into the business. Competition is good news for the consumer, as five private players and one state-owned operator slug it out. And what’s more, two other groups are waiting to join the fray.

Indeed, the DTH field has expanded so much that price cuts, attractive packages and offers are being doled out to woo customers.

Against this backdrop, several questions beg for answers.

How many service providers are there in the DTH business?

The latest to join the bandwagon is Airtel TV, launched early this month. Reliance Communications’ BIG TV took off in August. It joins Dish TV and Tata Sky. The Bharti group and Videocon are planning to enter the DTH segment by year end. Sun TV, so far operating mostly in south India, is going to make its presence felt in other regions. Doordarshan Direct Plus offers 20 Doordarshan channels and 27 private free-to-air channels.

How many subscribers are opting for DTH ?

The total number of DTH connections in India stands at between six and seven million versus 40,000 subscriptions in 2003 when Dish TV was the sole player. Incidentally, Dish TV also claims to be the only DTH platform to be available on flights, cars and ships.

Vikram Mehra, chief marketing officer, Tata Sky Ltd — which has 2.3 million connections — says, quoting a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the Indian entertainment and media industry, that the number of DTH households is expected to grow to 25 million by 2012.

Why should you subscribe to DTH? Why not stick to your cable operator?

For one, picture clarity is better in DTH. For another, DTH service companies may offer you far more channels (and some unusual ones) than your cable TV man would.

Which DTH service should I subscribe to?

Choose a DTH operator depending on your requirements. Operators offer several packages to suit individual needs. You may want a low-cost package. Or you may opt for one which offers the maximum number of channels.

For Rs 200 a month, you can opt for Tata Sky’s Family Pack of 92 channels. Big TV offers 93 channels for Rs 175 a month, and Dish TV gives you 94 channels for Rs 263 a month. With Airtel TV, the package will start from Rs 2,000 for a six-month subscription. All the service providers offer you a regional bouquet with other channels. These are packages which give you a wide variety of channels.

Which is the cheapest of the three DTH service operators?

Dish TV, promoted by the Zee group, offers the cheapest option. For Rs 1,990 (plus Rs 200 for installation) you get a new connection that gives you 125 channels for Rs 100. But these channels are mostly from the Zee stable.

What happens if I have a problem? How efficient are the service centres of DTH operators?

BIG TV from Reliance is still in its infancy. Airtel TV has just opened bookings. Dish TV and Tata Sky usually take less than 24 hours to sort out complaints. “Whenever I face a problem relating to the non-availability of a channel or signal, it gets resolved within 24 hours. Moreover, the customer care department sends me an SMS on the status of my complaint,” says Delhi-based Dish TV subscriber Lalit Bhatia.

Do I have to subscribe to all the channels in a package or can I pick and choose?

As of now, the customer cannot choose each and every channel. “It is a mammoth activity to cater to individual choices. There will always be packages of popular and not-so-popular channels mixed together,” says an official at Dish TV. Regional, foreign and sports channels can be added as top-up options to the existing packages.

Can I shift from one DTH operator to another without buying a new set top box (STB) and dish antenna?

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the industry regulator, has formulated strict guidelines for technical interoperability — which enables you to shift from one DTH operator to another without having to buy a new STB or dish antenna.

“All the DTH operators are supposed to provide technical interoperability. If any operator refuses to do so, the subscriber can bring it to our notice,” says R.N. Chowbey, principal adviser, broadcasting and cable services, Trai, New Delhi.

Trai maintains that STBs have a slot known as a common interface (CI). When you change your DTH service, the new operator should provide you with a gadget called a conditional access module (CAM) which can fit into the CI slot. CAM enables you to move from one operator to another without having to buy an STB.

But the costs are high. “At present, the cost of installing a CAM is as much as that of a new connection. As a result, technical interoperability has not been very successful,” admits Chowbey. Not surprisingly, subscribers prefer to get a new connection than opt for interoperability.

Tata Sky says it meets all interoperability conditions, while Dish TV holds that it is not an option it offers. BIG TV says because of its “advanced technology” it cannot offer interoperability.

Can a DTH operator block a channel even though it is a part of my package?

No broadcaster is supposed to block a channel that is part of a package, but neither is an operator bound to buy an entire bouquet of channels from a broadcaster. “Even if a DTH operator falls out with a broadcaster, the operator can’t block a channel,” says a Dish TV official.

If I have a complaint about any DTH company, where do I go?

Any complaint regarding a service operator can be directed to Trai. The subscriber can either email (trai@del2. vsnl.net.in or trai@trai.gov.in), fax (011-23222816) or post a written complaint to TRAI, Mahanagar Doorsanchar Bhawan, Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, New Delhi-110002.

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