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TV transition caught in digitisation circus

A deadline many cable operators don’t care about but are happy to exploit has turned the transition from analogue to digital cable television into a farce with a potentially unhappy ending for the subscriber.

Saswati Basu of Lake Town was recently charged Rs 1,000 for a set-top box, Rs 300 more than what her next-door neighbour paid a few months ago for one of the same make. Her cable operator told her the price had increased because of “high demand” and that she should brace for a two-fold increase in subscriber fees from November 1.

“It’s all working out to the cable operator’s advantage. The October 31 deadline is looming but unlikely to be met, set-top boxes are in short supply and there is confusion over the pricing policy for digital feed. The situation is ripe for exploitation and some are cashing in,” said an official of a multi-system operator.

Most MSOs have been supplying standard digital set-top-boxes to their franchisees for Rs 799 each and subscribers are supposed to pay not a rupee more. But in some parts of Calcutta, cable operators are demanding — and getting — Rs 1,600 for a box.

“The cable operators are a law unto themselves. They don’t listen to us, they don’t listen to the government,” said Sudip Ghosh of Manthan Broadband, one of the MSOs with a large presence in the east.

It helps those with the biggest stake in undeclared cable connections that the state government is trying to get the digitisation deadline pushed back again.

If Delhi obliges, they can continue to earn from ghost cable connections and not share that money with the MSOs, the broadcasters and the government by way of service tax. The opportunity to overcharge for set-top-boxes and subscriber feed will also remain.

Urban development minister Firhad Hakim said at Writers’ on Wednesday that he had written to information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni, saying Calcutta couldn’t meet the October 31 deadline because of technical hurdles.

“I met the multi-system operators and cable operators today. Some of them have completed 50 per cent of the transition while others are saying they have done 70 per cent. The remaining analogue connections cannot be converted to digital in such a short time,” Hakim said.

The letter states that the Trinamul government would calculate how long it could take for digitisation to be completed and apprise Delhi about it “after the festive season”.

A senior official in Hakim’s department claimed the government had estimated that at least another year was required for the process.

“As long as we are not ready, we are requesting the Centre to let TVs in Calcutta run on both analogue and digital signals. In any case, the government believes this whole digitisation business is a ploy to help the Koreans (who manufacture set-top boxes) and Americans (which make other digital cable components),” he said.

The information and broadcasting ministry had reported in mid-September that 67 per cent of the digitisation process had been completed in Calcutta. But industry insiders said over 65 per cent of the work was still left.

Mumbai has made some headway since the previous deadline but Delhi and Chennai aren’t likely to do any better than Calcutta in the next 28 days, said industry analyst Mrinal Chatterjee.

According to an estimate, of the 40 lakh cable homes in the city that need to go digital by October 31, only 13 lakh have made the transition so far.