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Digitization of Cable TV: Way ahead for Indian Television
9/12/2013 10:19:24 PM

Dr. Pragya Khanna

An ordinance has been
passed by the Govt.
of India on the compulsory digitization of the Cable Services. According to this amendment made in the section 9 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Ordinance, 1995, the I&B ministry will make Digital Addressable System mandatory. This step is meant to authorize consumers to an increased number of channels and high quality viewing. Digitization will lead TV viewers to more qualitative viewing with access to digital picture and High Definition Digital (HDD) Sound Quality. TV viewing services in India are presently provided chiefly by three mediums, viz., Analogue Cable Services, Digital Cable Services and Digital DTH Services. Analogue cable services have been continuing in India for more than two decades in India; nevertheless, analogue cable services have restricted number of channels and do not have extra features and value added services. Digital DTH services in India have been started less than a decade back and are gaining recognition and popularity in India mainly because of their better-quality picture and sound superiority.
The cable operators transmit the channels in analogue signal mode which is generally very hazy. The frequent troubles associated with the analogue transmission include ambiguous images and strident or shrill signals. It is observed that after a particular number, the quality of channels become very poor. Also, in high end televisions, cable is more distorted and one will not be able to watch the programs clearly. You need to switch over to the Digital signals provided by a DTH service provider to bring in the full benefits of a high end television and its advanced features. In a digital signal, the receptivity is much clearer and all the channels have the same reception quality. As both the signals are received at the same time, there are no issues with the synchronization of sound with video.
The Cable operators in the country are at present providing analogue signals. There is an enormous cost involved in digitization of cable signals and many cable operators are shying away from this kind of investment, except for a few organized and large scale cable operators.
In order to explain it in simple terms, DTH means, Direct to Home Service. Through this service, the recipient will receive the signals directly from the satellite on his Set Top Box. The viewer gets a wider range of channels to choose from which can be activated through packages. The viewers are also able to watch High Definition content which is set to make television viewing even more outstanding. HD Channels is one of the chief advantages for a DTH Service subscriber along with other features.
Digitization is the process of converting information into a digital format. In this format, information is organized into discrete units of data (called bits) that can be separately addressed (usually in multiple-bit groups called bytes). This is the binary data that computers and many devices with computing capacity (such as digital cameras and digital hearing aids) can process.
Audio and video digitization uses one of many analogue-to-digital conversion processes in which a continuously variable (analog) signal is changed, without altering its essential content, into a multi-level (digital) signal. The process of sampling measures the amplitude (signal strength) of an analogue waveform at evenly spaced time markers and represents the samples as numerical values for input as digital data.
Digitizing information makes it easier to preserve, access and share. For example, an original historical document may only be accessible to people who visit its physical location, but if the document content is digitized, it can be made available to people worldwide. There is a growing trend towards digitization of historically and culturally significant data.
India is home to roughly 147 million cable TV households today, up from 400,000 in January 1992 and 94 million in 2011 (as per a recent report). The "idiot box" is so popular in the country that it is one of the only devices known to have infiltrated pretty much every income group.
As understanding of the new regulation spread and people started talking about the need for set-top boxes, it became clear that the move would be far from smooth. Right at the beginning, meeting the expenses emerged as one of the factors that could scamper the entire plan of making set-top boxes compulsory.
It has been revealed that consumers are often being charged illogically for set-top boxes by their cable TV operators. Many operators charge as much as Rs 1,500, but there are instances of STBs being offered for free. This not only infuriates the subscribers, but also dissuades those who are waiting for prices to be regulated in the hope that STBs will become cheaper. Even if the price of a set-top box is standardized, it could be too much for some subscribers.
Principally, digitization guarantees to improve the quality audio and video that a customer receives. Digital TV services also allow for more channels and services such as movies on demand. Digitization will also help control the under-reporting of subscribers by local cable operators, which is a general tactic for avoiding taxes and fees. According to the same report as mentioned earlier, local cable operators report only around 15 percent of their paying customers to Multiple System Operators (MSOs) and broadcasters, as a result of which their value reduces and the government loses out on service tax.
In stark contrast to the slow rate of adoption of digital TV technology in the country, a host of Direct-To-Home (DTH) players have managed to corner large audiences across Indian towns and cities. This has clearly shown that there is room for improvement in the market, and that consumers are prepared to pay for superior services.
Some guidelines in the interest of consumers have now emerged from the Broadcast Regulator, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI); first, the number of channels that you get increases massively. On the current analogue system, technically about 200 channels can be broadcast. However, in the real world scenario keeping issues like quality of wiring, signal drops due to distance etc., usually you get 90 - 100 channels that are watchable. On a digital network, the operator will be able to offer anywhere between 400 channels to 700 channels.
Secondly as discussed earlier, the picture quality will see a huge improvement. Third is the ability to tailor the channel package more to your needs, meaning you can pick up channels individually as well.
However, the limitation here is that you will need to buy a set top box from your cable service provider to continue using the service. This will cost anywhere between Rs 700 and Rs 2000, and will be offered with the option of absolute forthright payment or part payment and part EMIs. Without this box, you will not be able to watch television, not even free to air channels (FTA).
For the government, greater customer declaration will lead to better tax compliance and tax revenues. Lastly, broadcasters will enjoy a reduced dependence on advertising revenues with subscription based services as well as a lowering of carriage fees.
Experts believe that this digitization process will require investment to the tune of Rs. 40,000- Rs. 50,000 crore. Now since the bill is passed, DTH players are not leaving any stone unturned to attract consumers to switch from analogue cable to digital DTH Services. DTH players like Videocon d2h, Tata Sky and Dish TV are also focusing to digitize the whole building instead of single apartments which are called Multi Dwelling Units (MDU). The benefits of such services are clutter free terrace, systematic wiring, no line of sight issue, one single antenna and the cost.
It is true that a part of this investment will be borne by the consumers in terms of DTH set top boxes or cable TV set top boxes but it would not be enough to complete cable TV digitization in the country. Anyhow, as per Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995, there has been complete digitization of cable television in the 4 metros of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai since November 2012. In the second phase, plans are to digitize cities with over 10 lakh population and to complete pan India digitization by December 31, 2014. So, from 2015 there would be no analogue signals and the entire country would move to digital.
The task looks impracticable to some, and as per government guidelines all analogue signals will be switched off as per the cut-off date. To complete this job for 130 mn cable TV subscribers serviced by 65,000 cable operators will not be simple, and there would be lot of confrontation in small towns and cities. However, if we are able to succeed in the process, it would be the most insistent cable TV digitization in the world, and the consumer will have the choice to settle for either a cable set top box or DTH services.
Digitization will definitely provide an enormous potential for all stakeholders. Consumers will benefit in terms of high quality viewing and also higher number of TV channels. Subscribers will also raise themselves to HD viewing, live TV recording and interactive experience. Broadcasters will gain in terms of new income flow as they would not have to be totally dependent on carriage fees collected by cable TV operators. Even cable TV operators can charge a payment for providing digital services to subscribers. The cable TV operators can also collect information on subscribers' viewing habit and monetize them by charging premium from advertisers. All this will lead to advanced evaluation for cable TV investors. Even the government will benefit from increased revenue as there would be precision, lucidity and clarity in terms of subscribers.
Once digitization is taken care, one can see real turning point in IT, communications and entertainment (ICE) and this is going to promote everybody on individual level as we will see lot of modernization.
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