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CONDITIONAL ACCESS: India and the world

16-December-2002
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CONDITIONAL ACCESS: India and the world

The Conditional Access System (CAS) will become a reality soon and viewer will become the king, or at least that's what is evident from the look of things. Whatever conditions might have set the ball rolling towards the implementation of CAS (along with its bundle of concerns and celebrations), the model of CAS in it self has successfully thrived in Europe, United States and many other countries in addition to many more choices.

Let's examine and compare some of the concerns attached with the conditional access system in India and worldwide:

Set Top Box
According to the report by Ministry of I&B, all encrypted channels have been defined as "subscription based channels" to be available through the set top boxes, while the unencrypted, or free to air channels, need not be routed through the set-top box. It is also reported that cost of the set-top box, which is likely to be between Rs 3000 and Rs 4000, should be left to the market forces as long as the consumer was made fully aware of the availability and capability of the equipment. So will the consumer still become the king when there will be an investment of Rupees 'X' towards the purchase of a Set top box?

In the US and Australia pay television operators rent out set top boxes as part of the subscription service so the consumer does not invest in equipment and can easily transfer from one operator to another. Then there is Simulcrypting. Through this, each broadcaster transmits the other's encryption code alongside its own so that a receiver running either conditional access system can decode the other's signal. Rival operators BSkyB and ONDigital in the UK have negotiated simulcypt arrangements, each preferring their own conditional access system which was particularly tailored to their needs but recognising consumers' need for inter-operability.

Flash Memory is a system being developed in Japan where new conditional access software can be downloaded - or removed - directly from the operator's site to the consumer's set top box when a consumer changes operators without the need for a new box. This avoids the problem of 'enclosure' in simulcrypting where consumers can access one operator's system from within the other's but not switch entirely from one to the other.

While in India, we are yet to see the 'first generation of Set top box', the western world is finding ways and means to improve their set top boxes. And that is not all. We still have to look into a scenario where both DTH and Cable (through set top box) will coexist simultaneously? `

Free to Air channels
It is evident from the meetings between the broadcasters, the cable operators, the multi-system operators (MSO), and the representatives of the I&B ministry that there is an agreement on a total of 33 channels which will constitute the basic tier of 'Free to air' channels including the 3 'must carry' DD channels. But there are concerns among various cable operators regarding the compulsions of carrying some of the free to air channels.

In the United States programme access and channel occupancy rules are specifically designed to tackle vertically integrated cable operators (since cable has, according to one estimate, 65% market share). Any cable operator who owns programme services (either channels or sports/film rights) must offer them to competing cable and satellite operators on fair and non-discriminatory terms and may use no more than 30% of their capacity to transmit their own channels.

'Must carry' rules in Germany, the US and Japan ensure that dominant cable operators cannot simply carry their own content, but must also make capacity available to free-to-air public service and commercial broadcasters.

According to the Conditional access rules in the UK, owners of proprietary conditional access systems are required by EU legislation. It is implemented in the UK. It makes available to all broadcasters their conditional access system on a 'fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory basis'. Access to the BBC and the free-to-air commercial broadcasters, which are considered core services, is also considered a basic right so the BBC aims for 99.9% coverage and commercial broadcasters also have goals to reach as high a coverage as possible. Which is not often the case with our indigenous public broadcasting system.

In countries with high cable penetration (like Germany and the US), universal access to the free-to-air channels is achieved by 'must carry' rules so that all the free-to-air signals must also be carried on cable. Something which is yet to sink in our system of cable operations in India.

Pay television

Although pay television has been available in the UK since the early 80s, overall penetration is still fairly low around 27% for cable and satellite combined (compared to 82% in the US or 83% in Germany, according to one estimate).

The introduction of digital terrestrial television as a subscription service potentially brings pay television into the domain of households previously not attracted to cable and satellite services. The way the transition to digital television has been structured in the UK very much encourages the widespread take-up of pay television; although consumers can buy an unsubsidised set top box or a non-proprietary integrated digital television set and simply receive the simulcast and new free-to-air channels.

This shift to pay television is not taking place in all countries; those who are using the digital revolution to move towards high definition television rather than multi-channelling (Australia, US, Japan) would still be maintaining a free-to-air broadcasting system.

In India, the concept of pay television is still struggling to take a proper form and shape. But in the western world, there are choices. Their vast spectrum includes Interactive TV, ranging from viewer control over schedules, to electronic programme guides (EPG), to video on demand (VOD), and pay-per-view (PPV), to actually having some control over the content (combining different camera shots) to actual contribution to content (interactive game shows and lotteries).

Amongst all the technical advancements in the world of television and airwaves, Indian television consumer continues to look for answers to the basic problem of fluctuating subscription rates, poor cable quality, and frequent cable blackouts by the neighborhood Cabelwaalas. One sincerely hopes that the proposed Conditional Access System will provide the answers to some of the basic grievances of the Indian consumer.


ASHISH SINHA - exchange4media News Service

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