Get set for high-definition thrill on your TV

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By PIYA SINGH & JAYATI GHOSE
  • Published 29.03.10
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Mumbai, March 28: Rajesh D. (35), a manpower consultant, spends his evenings alone these days closeted in a Mumbai service apartment.

Like many of his pals, Rajesh chooses to watch the IPL matches at home rather than spend a convivial evening at a favourite nightspot.

The only difference between the young entrepreneur, who shuttles between Calcutta and Mumbai, and his friends is that Rajesh loves crowing about the fact that he can see the six rows of stitches on the cricket ball, the sharply-defined spikes in Shane Warne’s hair, and the cracks on the pitch when the ball lands at the good length spot.

“That’s high definition TV (HDTV) broadcast for you. It gives you the kick of a lifetime,” says Rajesh who has recently subscribed to Sun Direct’s HD broadcast on a direct-to-home (DTH) platform after he saw a demonstration at a Calcutta electronics store.

“It’s like catching a movie at a multiplex,” echoes Arijit Basak, a software professional at an IT firm in Gurgaon.

Rajesh and Arijit sound like a happy bunch of neo-converts to the biggest technology change that’s sweeping across television screens. HDTV offers viewers a cinema-like experience at home with images that are five times sharper than a regular broadcast, CD quality sound and a widescreen viewing experience.

Scramble for share

Sun Direct is the first DTH player to have ventured into HDTV broadcasting — just about a week ago — at a price of nearly Rs 10,000 that includes the set-top box, dish, installation and a one-year HD package, besides the metro package. Others plan to quickly follow suit. Dish TV and Reliance’s Big TV will offer HDTV in the first quarter of the new fiscal.

“We expect to launch our HD service shortly,” said Tata Sky’s chief marketing officer Vikram Mehra.

Competitors accuse Sun Direct of skimming the market. Sun Direct has the first-mover advantage but other DTH operators hint that they will be priced lower. For instance, Dish TV — from the Zee stable — says it will be priced 25 to 30 per cent lower than the only HDTV broadcaster so far at around Rs 7,000 to Rs 7,500.

Big TV reckons that its service — including the set top box — will be priced at a little less than Rs 6,000. Umesh Rao, senior vice-president at Big TV, says the channel will launch HDTV feed in 100 Indian cities.

Tata Sky may consider subsidising the service as several DTH providers have already done for normal broadcasts, said sources. Tata Sky, however, declined to comment on the price point for its proposed HDTV service.

Clearly, HDTV broadcast is a service that is targeted at the elite though prices will come down as it becomes popular. Before that, however, there are several glitches to iron out and millions of dollars that have to be invested by DTH providers, broadcasters and content providers. Two major sporting events loom this year — the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and the World Cup Soccer extravaganza in South Africa — and they will be the biggest drivers for HDTV.

“India currently has 3 lakh HD-ready households. By the end of the year, this will go up to 30 lakh, largely driven by these major sporting events,” says R.K. Arnold, secretary with telecom regulator Trai.

R.K. Zutshi, deputy managing director of Samsung India, says the craze for full HD television sets is already visible. “The price difference between an HD-ready and a full HD television set has shrunk to about 5 per cent. In 2009, full HD flat panel televisions accounted for 30 per cent of all sales. This year we expect it to grow to 50 per cent.”

The big challenge

But that is only half of the story. The bigger challenge will be to get the broadcasters to beam HD content.

Sun Direct’s COO Tony De’Silva says, “The problem is that Indian content is still not shot in high definition. Channels can, however, upscale transmission bandwidth from 3.5-4.5 megabits to 8.5-10 megabits.” That takes some investment. Colors has done this for Sun Direct, while the DTH provider upscales the standard definition to high definition at its own end.

Sun Direct is offering seven HD channels at this point, including IPL Cricket HD, Discovery HD, National Geographic HD, Colors and even generates its own HD content for Tamil and Telugu movies.

DTH operators are cagey about their discussions with broadcasters on HD content. Several channels are gearing up to offer HDTV content in three genres — infotainment, sports and movies. Those who have alliances with global broadcasters may be able to access HD technology from abroad. Channels such as HBO, Cartoon Network, and Pogo have converted to HD feeds and will be available in India by the end of the year.

Pricey proposition

But there are niggling troubles: access to HDTV broadcasts will be expensive, content will be limited and DTH operators as well as broadcasters will have to find their feet in a new market. That is true for most new technologies.

Till then, DTH providers seem to be pushing the personal video recorder service bundled with the HDTV set-top box. Big TV’s Rao says, “Our HDTV digital video recorder will offer 200 hours of recording, besides a universal remote.”

While DTH providers get their act together, state-run Doordarshan will not be left behind. SIS Live, a UK broadcaster, has bagged the rights from Doordarshan to beam the Commonwealth Games in HD format. In August 2009, the Union cabinet approved a Rs 165-crore plan to allow Doordarshan to upgrade to a high-definition format. For the Commonwealth Games, SIS Live will have 250 high definition cameras and 2,000 skilled manpower to cover the events in the HDTV format. The UK partner is expected to train 300 technicians of the state-run broadcaster.

Industry observers say one problem that can trip up the HDTV boom is bandwidth. “Many DTH companies are so starved of satellite bandwidth that they don’t have space for all the standard definition channels on offer, leave alone devoting more bandwidth for carrying HD versions,” said a Trai official.

“As a satellite operator, we are carrying lots of HD content. But we need to let the market find its own natural way. I believe right content and pricing are the only way to meet the viewers needs and expectations,” said Sabrina Cubbon, GM (marketing) of AsiaSat — a satellite operator. The couch potatoes will soon have even more reason to loll in their beanbags.