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Mamata signals cable war

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has vowed not to let analogue television signals go off air in Calcutta on November 1, backing the subscriber reluctant to pay more for set-top box technology and the cable operator happy to dilly-dally past another digitisation deadline.

“There are questions both about the availability of set-top boxes and their affordability. People are not getting boxes…. Besides, how can the Centre expect poor people to spend between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500 on set-top boxes in this festive season? If the Centre is so keen on digitisation, let them pay for the set-top boxes. If people can’t watch TV from November 1, there will be protests on the streets,” Mamata declared during a news conference at Writers’ on Tuesday afternoon.

Less than two hours later, she was holding a meeting with the multi-system operators (MSOs) to warn them about a law-and-order breakdown if they switched off analogue signals. “She told us the city was not ready to accept the switch (to digital signals) yet. She said switching off analogue signals could result in law-and-order problems,” said a representative of the cable industry.

According to an unofficial estimate, barely 16 lakh out of the 42 lakh cable homes in the city — many of them not in the official count thanks to under-declaration by the cableman — have been digitised. So around 26 lakh television screens would go blank if analogue signals are switched off on November 1.

“We are in a fix. The chief minister wants us to continue beaming analogue signals while the information and broadcasting ministry has made it mandatory for us to switch to digital signals from November 1,” the industry official said.

Mamata chose to speak to party colleague C.M. Jatua, who had been minister of state for information and broadcasting until Trinamul’s pullout from the UPA 2, for “clarifications” on the cable mess. “Aami C.M. Jatua-ke phone korechhilam. Uni bollen tar kichhu jana nei. Tar kachhe eita aana hoyni (I had called C.M. Jatua. He said he didn’t know anything. He wasn’t kept informed about this).”

But Lok Sabha records show that Jatua had specified October 31 as the last date for digitisation of cable signals in a written reply to a question on the subject on August 21. “Regular reviews are being held.... Interaction with the state governments is continuing to seek their cooperation.”

The I&B ministry seems determined to enforce this deadline. A senior ministry official told Metro: “We have been asked to stay the course. There is no question of another extension.”

The only hope for those pushing for more time is the change at the top. New minister Manish Tewari might like to revisit the subject and understand the complexities involved if some chief ministers — other than Mamata — express formal objections, sources said.

With time running out, the leading MSOs said they would speak to senior ministry officials “as soon as possible”.

While Mamata insists she is speaking for lakhs of cable homes, the flip side is that her stance could benefit unscrupulous cable operators more. A further delay in digitisation would allow them to continue earning from undeclared connections, denying broadcasters their legitimate share of the spoils.

The MSOs, of course, dare not ignore Didi’s diktat. What might save them is a technical loophole in partial digitisation. “There are some MSOs who operate beyond the metropolitan area. These MSOs will continue to receive analogue signals, which they can illegally re-route to the city network,” a source said.

The MSOs can employ another strategy if the broadcasters release only digital signals to the metros. “There is a device called the modulator that can be used to convert digital signals into analogue. Every cable operator has at least two or three of these,” a cable operator said.

The use of a modulator would be restricted, though. Only one channel can be converted by each modulator, which means the operator can at best beam the free-to-air channels and two or three pay channels.