India Opens Door to Satellite Platforms

New Delhi, India-The telecommunications and broadcasting industries in India have reason for optimism now that the government is pushing to lift the ban on direct-to-home Ku-band platforms.

That word surfaced in the recently released Telecommunication and Broadcasting Act 2000, a comprehensive regulatory framework dealing with communications, information technology and broadcasting.

While the Act-actually a bill that needs to be ratified by Parliament-is wide-sweeping, it provides few details on specific issues.

The media industry was relieved at the government's position that the country should approve Ku-band DTH service. However, some observers noted that the government still needs to address the nitty-gritty details and explain how DTH will be implemented.

"We need to know how DTH is being brought in," said Ranjan Bakshi, a spokesman for pay TV giant Zee Telefilms Ltd. "It must make a front-door entry in a fair and equitable manner."

He noted that a prior government had said state-run broadcaster Doordarshan would have exclusive rights to provide DTH service for five years. The current legislation does not address that issue.

"The government needs to clarify whether DTH licenses are going to be available to both Indian and foreign broadcasters, or to only the former category," Bakshi added.

Both Zee and the News Corp.-backed Star TV group have had designs on an Indian DTH service for years. Star TV already has 1,300 subscribers for its C-band DTH platform. Its project to start a Ku-band platform three years ago was derailed by a last-minute ban on the service by the Indian government.

Star TV executive director of strategic planning and new investments Urmilla Gupta said the entire viability of DTH has undergone a sea change since the time of the ban.

"Today, 70 channels are being delivered via cable. [That number] is only expected to increase," Urmilla said. "With [cable] subscribers getting such a variety [of channels on cable], why will they invest in an additional [decoder] box, which, at current prices, costs 25,000 rupees [$575]?"

Gupta contended that in order for a DTH platform to succeed in India today, providers need to offer new, value-added services, such as interactive channels. "The immediate use for DTH would be in far-flung and remote areas with little cable penetration," he added.

"The introduction of any new technology is a positive step forward," Cable Operators Federation of India president Roop Sharma said. She added, however, that she hopes detailed legislation would also incorporate cable and broadcast TV, so that the three forms of distribution would be judged side-by-side.

Minister of information and broadcasting Arun Jaitley agreed on the need for overall regulations, but he refused to spell out specific details. "The final decision with regard to DTH will be taken by the group of ministers, led by home minister Lal Kishan Advani," he said, without providing further information.

Both the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the Department of Telecommunications have finalized their respective regulatory documents in record time.

These have been placed before a government committee on convergence in order to come up with a comprehensive, detailed document covering all aspects of communications, including Internet-related activities.

"With new areas emerging, the laws will have to evolve. New laws will have to be framed to acknowledge the thrust of convergence [and to] ensure a regulatory method for telecommunications, broadcasting and our carriage systems," Jaitley said.

A senior official in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry pointed out that Jaitley is very technology-friendly, and he was keen on seeing a quick approval of the legislation.