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The stage has been set for the dawn of the digital era in Indian broadcasting. Earlier this month, Parliament cleared a Bill to amend the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act for ushering in digitization. Cable digitization will be implemented in phases and will be completed by December 2014.

This is certainly a moment of triumph for broadcasters who had been lobbying with the government to allow the cable industry to convert from analog to digital. In the digital addressable systems (DAS), service providers can offer more options to consumers, who will be able to select the channels of their choice.

We already have new addressable digital TV platforms such as direct-to-home (DTH) and Internet protocol television (IPTV), but this new drive will pave the way for bringing about digitization in the cable television sector. The cable industry has grown from 400,000 cable-linked homes in January 1992 to an estimated 94 million in 2011. The total number of TV households in India is estimated to be around 147 million.

It is hoped that with digitization, there will be more transparency in the business model, resulting in increased revenue. Also, the DAS makes possible for service providers to tap additional business opportunities in the form of value-added and interactive services.

It will enable the provision of broadband and triple-play (voice, video and data) services through the network. For the next breakthrough in Indian broadcasting, this was a necessary upgrade.

In recent times, the media in India has been criticized for poor standards of content and unchecked growth. Union minister of information and broadcasting Ambika Soni has been fielding numerous attacks on the media from both within and outside Parliament. Unlike Kapil Sibal, the Union minister of communications and information technology, who wants to control content on the Internet, Soni realized quite early on that the issue needs to be addressed.

By making digitization a reality, Soni’s ministry has been able to appease broadcasters and also bring in more addressability to this sector.

This is, however, an enormous task and also a complicated endeavour. The nodal monitoring and execution mechanism is yet to be specified. The sheer scale and roll-out of this initiative needs large-scale planning and coordination among all stakeholders, training and orientation to more than 200,000 cable operators in the country, and also communicating to consumers what going digital means for them in terms of choice, access and quality.

There are a number of unresolved issues and also challenges that are yet to be addressed. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), in a recently released consultation paper, lists issues dealing with tariffs, interconnection and quality of service. Similarly, the cable industry has flagged its own concerns on revenue sharing and the availability of set-top boxes, among issues concerning options available to consumers. Issues are also being raised to facilitate financial concessions and tax sops for meeting the 2014 deadline.

Besides, the larger issue of the role of broadcasting remains unaddressed. This is important as broadcasting utilizes a public resource—the airwaves. It clearly has a larger mandate than just contributing to the economy of the country.

So what role will broadcasting play in a developing country like ours is an important question that needs to be answered. The vision for this sector is also critical because of its crucial role as the fourth pillar of democracy.

The second issue needing attention is the regulator for this sector.

The long-overdue proposal to have an independent authority to oversee the broadcasting sector—one that has been under consideration on the request of Parliament, the Supreme Court and various civil society groups for nearly two decades now—must be revived. We have no independent body looking into content implications for our society.

Linked to these questions are critical issues that digitization will throw up, for example, issues of cross-media ownership, public service broadcasting and consumer redressal. The convergence opportunity will further amplify such dormant issues—for instance, the ambiguity in ownership rules has provided a gateway for telecom companies into the broadcasting sector. The resulting conflict of interest, and issues related to content standards, platforms or even competition laws, will be tricky to resolve.

Until now, the ministry of information and broadcasting and Trai have been taking care of issues in this sector. Not addressing crucial issues confronting this sector and the absence of an independent authority to oversee it could force digitization off track.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

Also Read |PN Vasanti’s earlier columns

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