Sunita Shinde, a domestic help and the sole breadwinner for a family of eight living in a Mumbai slum, watched her television go blank at midnight on 31 October. She didn’t buy a so-called set-top box required to stream digital signals to the television.
The government has made it mandatory by law for television viewers to access their signals through a set-top box in an attempt to convert cable networks throughout the country from analogue to digital. The four metros—Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai—were given a 31 October deadline to turn digital and switch off their analogue television signals.
As a consequence, viewers like Shinde, who did not purchase a set-top box, found themselves deprived of their main and, possibly, only source of entertainment. Even free-to-air channels such as DD1 and DD2—the Doordarshan channels of Prasar Bharati—cannot be accessed without the set-top box.
The story is similar in Delhi but television audiences in Kolkata and Chennai have got a reprieve. While the Madras high court has stayed the deadline for DAS, or digital addressable system, for five days, Kolkata has simply not made the switch on the back of the state chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s vehement opposition to the move by the Union government.
Analogue signals were not switched off for viewers in Kolkata as Banerjee had said earlier this week that she would launch a stir if DAS was enforced immediately. She asked for more time as the boxes were in short supply and there was a cost involved in installing them.
“It isn’t just about installing a set-top-box. We still are unaware of the pricing and packages for consumers, how to generate a bill for an MSO... and other details. There are many issues that need to be resolved,” said Swapan Chowdhury, member of the Cable Operators Digitization Committee, Kolkata.
MSO stands for multi system operator, typically a large cable network.
Incidentally, although the government claims Kolkata has achieved 85% digitization (including direct-to-home, or DTH platforms), the cable industry estimates that only 40% of the city has made the shift.
After a meeting between MSOs and representatives of the state government at Writers’ Buildings on Thursday, Bengal’s urban development minister Firhad Hakim said the state had asked the cable operators to prepare a package for the disadvantaged people so that they could buy set-top boxes at a discount. The cable operators have agreed to propose a package in a few days.
However, the big companies in the cable business claimed they had cut off analogue transmission completely. “All national MSOs have switched off signals from today. If there is piracy happening then it is at the local cable operator’s level and it is for the government to take action,” said Ashok Mansukhani, president, MSO Alliance.
S.N. Sharma, chief executive officer of Den Networks Ltd, agreed: “We have switched off TV signals in DAS areas where households have not installed set-top boxes.”
Incidentally, the ministry of information and broadcasting claimed DAS had achieved 100% penetration in Mumbai as on 30 October. However, local cable operators claimed the number was closer to 70%.
“The remaining households that need to migrate to digital system fall in slum areas. How can one expect them to suddenly pay around Rs.1,000?. It is not economical for them. They need time,” said Anil Parab of Mumbai Cable Operators’ Distributors Association. “We have not switched off signals in our area (in Mumbai). We are not opposed to digitization but are seeking an extension of two months,” he said.
The Bombay high court on Wednesday rejected the petition filed by a local cable operator, Paresh Thakker of Bhavani Rajesh Cable, seeking an extension of the deadline.
There are stress lines in Delhi, too. “There is a lot of pressure from consumers in areas where cable TV signals are off,” said Roop Sharma, president, Cable Operators Federation of India (COFI). Delhi local cable operators also dispute the ministry’s claim of having achieved 95% digitization (including DTH installations) in Delhi. They claim only 60% analogue homes have shifted to digital platforms (including DTH).
The situation in Chennai is different as the Madras high court on Wednesday granted cable operators an extension till 5 November when the next hearing is scheduled. Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa has been opposed to the deadline as the state-owned cable operator Arasu is not prepared to install set-top boxes.
Chennai’s cable industry executives said barely 20% of the city has moved to digital. The government figure is closer to 62%, and 86% if DTH platforms are included. “We have written to the central government requesting an extension of the digitization deadline as we are unable to import set-top boxes,” said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corp. Ltd.
Other MSOs in Chennai have not made set-top boxes available either, said M.R Srinivasan, general secretary of Chennai Metro Cable TV Operators Association that has 1,800 cable operators in its fold. SCV, the cable arm of Sun TV Network Ltd, has said that it can provide set-top boxes to cable operators only by mid-November, Srinivasan said. Vittal Sampathkumaran, managing director of SCV, declined comment.
“Our cable operator said we would have to pay Rs.1,000 in September but have not heard from him since then,” said Lakshmi Priya in south Chennai who is a fan of Tamil serials Thirumathi Selvam and Thangam on Sun TV. “None of the 15 homes in our housing colony have got the boxes.”