The second attempt in three years at implementing the conditional access system (CAS) for the delivery of cable TV has also run into rough weather. This time, the consumers are pleased, while the broadcasters are left unhappy. The broadcasters plan to take the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to court at individual channel levels. On the face of it, the Trai’s diktat of pay channels being priced at Rs 5 each, with the consumer having to pay an additional Rs 77 for 30 free-to-air channels, is a boon for consumers who have been plagued by arbitrary services of cable operator cartels.
But what is it about CAS that makes it a whirlpool of confusion every time its implementation is near? The NDA government brought in CAS to regulate the industry, which has willy-nilly grown into a whopping Rs 15,000 crore industry without any standards beyond the skeletal provisions of a 1995 Act. Broadcasters have been acutely unhappy as last mile cable operators (LMCO) would under-report the number of cable subscriptions. (In 2004, a cable operator had, on an average, upto 32,000 subscribers. But the LCMO claimed an average of 600 subscribers. This, when there were more than 47 million cable homes.) Consumers have been equally fed up. They had no choice of channels — it was the cablewallah’s decision. LMCOs divided residential areas into pockets which made it impossible for a consumer to change operators. Cable operators, on their part, also wanted to break free from broadcaster control — their complaint being that they were sold only bouquets and operators couldn’t bundle channels at their end. CAS was seen to be the solution. How, no one was quite sure. It was a no-win situation, a deadlock between the three stakeholders — the broadcaster, the consumer and the cable operator. Unable to work out any feasible solution, the idea was shelved. But no one quite knew what CAS’s promise had been.
Today, the consumer is willing to accept CAS because his monthly cable bill will be slashed and he will, apparently, not be at the cablewallah’s mercy. But the uni-dimensional pricing scheme has stumped broadcasters who claim their business models will have to be completely overhauled. That is true. Many early players wrapped up operations once they realised that ad revenue is insufficient to maintain satellite channels. Whether by December 31, 2006, CAS will storm into metro houses is unknown. But one thing is for sure: it will take plenty more twists and turns for the industry to reach some semblance of order.