The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Free tier in channel choice

New Delhi, March 7: A task force set up to implement the conditional access system for cable television is considering a proposal to include 30 free-to-air channels in a basic tier, a ceiling rate for which will be fixed by the government.

Official sources said “nothing has been decided as yet”, but at least two members of the task force representing different segments of the cable television industry said the committee was indeed studying the matter. In an unusual move, Union information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also attended the task force meeting for sometime.

The task force is headed by information and broadcasting joint secretary Rakesh Mohan. Today’s was its third meeting. The task force’s brief is to roadmap the implementation of conditional access in the four metros by the July 14 deadline.

If the task force recommends that 30 channels will comprise the “basic tier”, it will mean that the cable operator cannot charge the subscriber more than the rate fixed by the government. In other words, these channels will not have to be routed through a set-top box, the equipment at the core of the conditional access system, which will regulate only pay channels. Speculation on the pricing of the “basic tier” varies from Rs 40 to Rs 120.

The pricing of the basic tier is a test of the government’s claim that conditional access will actually make cable television viewing cheaper because the viewer can pick and choose channels. Broadcasters and operators fear the mechanism of conditional access can erode revenues earned for the large part by selling commercial time and inflating subscriber base.

“Basic tier” is the phrase used to describe the bunch of channels that cable operators will have to mandatorily supply to subscribers. It is understood that at the meeting today, it was pointed out that there are about 22 free-to-air cable channels. (Doordarshan is a terrestrial channel and is, therefore, outside the ambit of conditional access system). If the “basic tier” comprises 30 channels, that will leave room for eight more. The suggestion was made in the belief that some pay channels may go free-to-air with the implementation of CAS.

It is likely that the “basic tier” will not be uniform across the country. It could factor in local and regional demand.

Sources said a study done by finance ministry officials on “costing” was also given to the task force. The information and broadcasting ministry is in the process of figuring out the demand and supply situation for set-top boxes and the price at which set-top boxes may be made available.

It has decided to leave to market forces whether the set-top boxes — prices of each of which can range from Rs 1,700 for an analogue set to Rs 6,000 for a digital set — will be sold outright to subscribers or the costs will be shared.

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