THE Question Of CAS : Contradictions galore!; Lokesh
It is suitable to enter the field of Cable TV Industry by interrogating the reasons, the resistance and the support around the implementation of CAS (Conditional Access System) and most importantly the hullabaloo created by the same. Some of the questions that we will try and examine here are: Why does the market, which claims to be free and competitive in its nature need to resort to Law? How does one comprehend the interference of the state in the market by way of the Law? It is not at all surprising then if the government holds suspicious ground against the market especially when the Ministry of Disinvestment is heard saying "It is not the business of the government to do business". The bet though is that finally it is the consumer who is at the receiving end of this chaos. It is clear enough that it is the government who has to ultimately step in whenever there is a crisis in the relationship that binds the market with consumer. Ironically, it is not the government that is responsible for this crisis, but indeed the creation of a 'new media' space between the otherwise harmonious world of the market and the consumer. The implementation of CAS in the Cable TV Industry is inevitably responsible for producing one such crisis-ridden situation, considering the far-reaching effects it has on the cultural, social and economic fronts.
Ever since its inception, this industry has developed at its own pace, in accordance to the rules of the market and the logic that governs capital, keeping itself at bay from the overbearing interference of the Law and the State. The rules of the market place and the logic that governs capital more often than not challenge the limitations of law and if one were to quote Shrikant on this, then there is a perpetual fear of being proved 'illegal' in such a situation. An interesting facet here is that for the longest time possible, there were no signs of the Law and the State prowling over the situation. Infact, it was only in 1995 that with great difficulty the Cable TV Industry even got the recognition of a small- scale industry. All that there was in the name of legality, was a formal 'registration' which was such an easy process that getting into the industry was really a child's play. Apart from these formalities, there were absolutely no rules and regulations to monitor an industry worth thousands and crores of rupees, leave aside resolving everyday struggles, conflicts and tensions. If looked at within reasonable parameters, this is truly a natural course of development for a market place.
To get an impression that I'm suggesting any kind of an anarchic regime when I pitch the legal against the illegal in the above mentioned facts, would be a gross misinterpretation of the same. All the contemporary spaces to which 'new media' belongs are pretty much out of bounds for both the law and the state. In other words, the kinds of activities that govern the functionality of these spaces and the complexity that they entail are for one, completely incomprehensible by the state and in areas where they have been able to comprehend anything at all, they are not in a position to regulate. Despite all this, there is a certain framework of rules and regulations that govern the everyday economics of the Cable TV Industry and the fore mentioned new spaces and this is definitely the case in certain areas of the field to say the least. This is precisely the basis on which the everyday of these so-called illegal activities is carried out and regulated. In a nutshell, it is this networking that is responsible for regulating the various aspects of new media and also one of the most crucial nodes of this process and study.
The time when I was in the last phase of my conversations with Shrikant, was also the time when the Cable Industry had pretty much done away with him. The formulation of a basic framework for CAS- to be able to regulate the Industry better- coming out of conversations of an 'addressible system' was also being done at the same time. Basically, it all started in 2002. At the time, the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smt. Sushma Swaraj, at very short notice called for the formation of a 'task force' for immediate implementation of a Cable TV Act. This task force comprised of multi-system operators (MSO), independent operators, broadcasters, producers and various representatives of cable operators. After three meetings of this task force, a new framework for the Act was suggested. Interestingly enough, the actual story dates a little way back. It was roughly around April-May 2002, which is also the time when Shrikant was being ousted from the trade only to get in another competitor, that there was a meeting of multi-system operators, broadcasters and distributors held to discuss the falling graph of profits within the trade owing to a perpetually growing competition in the field. One gets a somewhat clear picture of the extent of this rivalry within the trade when one speaks to an employee called Deepak working with Siti Cable. He says: "Due to heavy competition, the situation was so critical that you would provide a connection in a certain locality at night and the wire would be cut in a 100 pieces when u saw it in the morning. A multitude of operators functioning at the same time would make it nearly impossible for one to figure out or even track down the competitor who is responsible for this".
The consumer though was benefiting from this situation, which is usually the case when there is such heavy competition in the market. They were getting to watch cable at either very cheap rates or even nearly free, though every once in a while they were deprived of this advantage when the wires would be cut resulting in no cable at home. The owner of 'Model Town Cable Communication' Mr. Bharti had some interesting insights to offer when asked to comment on the fierce competition as well as on what cable operators thought of each other. He said: "That day was just like a match between India and Pakistan. Everyone was on their feet and was doing the rounds. The WIN ones, the IN ones and those belonging to SITI; they were all there! Now when all the thieves were on the move, who would cut cables?" Hence, all these people who organised the meeting to get rid of the ever-increasing menaces in the trade ultimately took refuge in some self-service! and devised a whole new set of regulations for themselves, a brief outlaying of which I have done in my previous article.
Anyway, the results of that meeting proved to be quite far-sighted for the Cable TV Industry. The MSO got utmost power by monopolising the IRD. The policy of not appointing any new operators, not giving IRDs to self-employed operators as well as by dividing areas in terms of localities, the trade witnessed a different yet special kind of a formation of a monopoly within it. This monopoly was established on localities and not the trade itself. This led to a sudden hike in the cable tariffs for the consumers. This is when the consumers started protesting against companies and the cable operators. With this also started the process of getting CAS into action. At the time when the idea of bringing CAS into the industry was being mulled over, it was being considered as a boon for the consumers. To a certain extent this was true but the real story behind the scenes pointed to a very different set of affairs, benefactors, losers, ulterior motives and what have you! Before one gets into dire straits over the issue of CAS, it is better to get a broad picture of what exactly CAS is all about, something that over a period of a year has given sleepless nights to broadcasters, cable operators, advertising agencies, producers, etc.! The Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Ravishankar Prasad has certainly released the Genie of CAS out of the bottle but interestingly enough, instead of being a slave to its master, it's now ready to lock everyone back in the bottle and just vamoose from the scene for good !!!
What is CAS ?
CAS or 'Conditional Access System' is such a provision through which the cable tv consumer can choose to watch only/any desired channels and therefore also pay only for the same and no more. Part 4 of the Cable TV (regulation) Ammendment Act incorporates the changes regarding the same. This is how, in 2002, the State has tried to get an otherwise 'illegal' cable tv trade under its regulation, by procuring for it a legal status. On 14th January 2003, the government, by issuing a notification, planned to implement CAS in the four metropolitans within a period of six months.
Scramble between CAS and CASH
Although the government made big claims of implementing CAS by the 14th of July, even till the last date of executing it, there were various kinds of myths, doubts and suspicions doing the rounds within the trade and outside of it. The indecision about the two varieties of the 'set top box' available- digital and analog, what would be done incase there are problems with the box at a later level- will it be replaced or will it be mended, the difference in the rates of the two varieties, etc. to site just a few. Where on the one hand some channels priced the box at Rs.7000/- each, after a few days one got to know that it was available at a much lower price while on the other some companies promised to give it on a lease costing anything between a 1000/- rupees to Rs.2700/- and then charging a tariff on an everyday basis right down to Re.1/-. As far as the 'free-to-air' channels were concerned, the government promised 30 channels for a flat rate of Rs.72/-, but some other companies promised even upto 40-50 channels.
The high price at which 'paid channels' came was also a matter of big concern. Where the government had promised that the maximum amount of tariff a consumer could pay was Rs.250/-, the actual amount that the consumer ended up paying at the end of the day was something like Rs.550/- or even more in accordance to the rates prescribed by the broadcasters. The operators were found accusing the government saying that while the government prescribed a flat rate of Rs.72 for them, it kept the rights of prescribing the rates for the paid-channels with itself. In their opinion, this was likely to create trouble within the trade.
Even the government stood on shaky ground vis-à-vis their stand on CAS. The deadline for the implementation of CAS was immediately forwarded to 1st September as soon as as 14th July came close, with the claim that there was a shortage in the availability of the set top boxes. Besides, it was said that CAS would now be implemented 'zone-wise', which meant that in a certain part of the city cable would be accessible only via CAS whereas in the rest of the city, cable would be accessible pretty much the way it was till then. This led to a lot of dissatisfaction. In another declaration, the government said that a 'dual-feed' system be followed, according to which consumers who want CAS should be given the same whereas those who don't, be allowed to access cable the old way. This declaration invited a lot of wrath on the part of the MSOs and the cable operators. By the time September came, the government yet again got an opportunity to ignore the issue in the wake of the forthcoming Delhi Elections. Madanlal Khurana was too scared that CAS might threaten his seat just the way it did during the 'onion issue'. Venkaiah Naidu was threatened by the thought that CAS might take an ugly shape just like VAT did, and so it eventually did! The Union Government threw cold water over the project in Delhi, the State Governments in Kolkata and Mumbai did not take action to implement it, and not much difference was made in Chennai even after CAS was implemented. As of now, the state of affairs is such that the government has still not been able to get a grip over the project and to top it all it has invited the wrath of cable operators by fixing a flat rate of Rs.72 for the free-to-air channels.
Different parties belonging to the cable tv industry had a great difference of opinion regarding the issue of CAS. Some supported it while others resisted. Various associations of cable operators in Delhi had their own ways of either supporting or resisting the cause. Presidents of 'NTCA', 'Cable Operators Federation of India', and 'All India Avishkar Dish and Antenna Committee' were all members of the task committee. They supported the Rs.72/- model saying that they are in favour of implementing CAS and are against creating hurdles in the process. Whereas the 'Cable Network Association' and the 'Cable Operators United Front' were convinced that such a low tariff was not at all enough for the cable operators to sustain themselves and would be the end of them, therefore it should be raised atleast upto Rs.180/-. They resorted to a lot of protests and demonstrations for the same.
Multi-system operators of all three- 'WIN', 'IN' and 'SITI' have created a work-plan which involves investment worth crores of rupees. Incase CAS is not implemented, they will have to incur heavy losses but incase it is implemented, they hope that once the consumer gets into a contract with one of them, it is unlikely that he would want to change his operator and get into a new contract because all operators would use set top boxes of different companies and therefore the latter would mean buying a new box which in any case would not come at a cheap price and why would the consumer want to invest twice. Therefore this situation also seems to be in favour of CAS. Even the producers are in favour of CAS because they are stocking boxes worth crores of rupees and its implementation would give them an opening to a hugely potential market.
Operators functioning at the level of individual localities or areas believe that they have an uphill task to care of. The consumer already gives them a hard time paying for each individual channel and to top it there is the 'entertainment tax'. This is certainly not going to be an easy job. On the other hand the broadcasters are perpetually hiking their tariffs and ultimately it is them who face the music! Naturally, as a course of their limitations they have to show fewer channels than promised and all they get in turn is adorned with titles like 'thieves'. Therefore, they believe that they will be in a much better position if CAS gets implemented.
On the other side, the broadcasters are strictly against CAS. In their opinion it is still not about time that CAS gets implemented in India and then there is no proper supply of boxes. Whereas the truth points to something completely different, which is their profits. The consumer would have the choice to pick up desirable channels if CAS gets implemented. Considering the cost-effective mentality that India harbours, most consumers would like to go only for the 'free-to-air' channels! It is quite obvious that this means a double loss for the broadcasters. On the one hand the inflow of capital from the end of the consumers will sharply decline and on the other the advertising agencies will no longer advertise profusely and therefore the profits coming in from that end would also fall. All these broadcaster companies are in the favour of getting a 'direct-to-home' system so that they can adequately monopolise the trade for their own benefits.
Where on the one hand, there are many voices for and against CAS within the trade, on the other, the 'consumer' is perpetually in a state of limbo. Whether or not CAS will favour him is something that is completely lost on him. On one hand he is excited by the freedom CAS gives him to pick and choose channels of his own choice, on the other he is perturbed by the huge investment the boxes call for and the various problems that would come free with them. Therefore, for now they are adopting a policy of 'wait and watch'. As far as the government goes, it believed that such a system would encourage transparency and therefore the operators would not be able to steal channels which would lead to entertainment tax which in turn would fill the pockets of the State. Ever since 1994, it has tried high and low to somehow carve out a niche for itself within this trade, but in vain.
In the past one year, ever since CAS has been lingering on the threshold of the cable tv industry, the graph of the trade has been such that it's really difficult to comment on it. When and how someone would complicate the matter even more with new proposals is something that is very difficult to say and rely on. The government had enforced with all its might that CAS would be implemented in July. The government's might was still too light! During the day, the multi-system operators agreed to a tariff plan of Rs.72, but by evening that united voice dishevelled into multiple narratives. Some resisting and some supporting whereas some just perched on the fence. A lot of the operators don't even have a clue of what exactly is coming out of this muck. They are just waiting to decide how to treat it when it is served to them on a platter. The broadcasters are at loggerheads with each other. Some want that CAS should get implemented but on their conditions, others are supporting the government fiercely behind their backs such that CAS is completely thrown out of the window. At the end of the day, the consumer who has to handle the googly thrown at him, is really at a loss and is completely flummoxed by the situation he has willy nilly been dragged into. He has decided not to decide anything for the time being.
To wind up this mess is a difficult job, but there is one central aspect which keeping in mind, everyone is trying to judge CAS- which is 'cash'. Cash means profits, booty, etc. The government has a stake of crores of rupees if CAS gets implemented. The multi-system operators can either enjoy the fruits of CAS or brood over their losses. For the operators, it is a situation of both joy and despair. The broadcaster is worried about a complete face off, because of the huge profits he makes out of procuring advertisements. The publics ofcourse are apprehensive regarding the huge investments expected out of them. In a nutshell, the implementation of CAS foreshadows a complete toppling of the hierarchised gains that the industry was so far used to at each subsequent level. And apparently, the ostensibly strongest level of this hierarchy, meaning the broadcaster, might just be the one that topples first.
Broadly speaking, we can say that the implementation of CAS would have far-sighted effects in the coming future. Post-implementation if the common man insists on watching the free-to-air channels the most, then it is quite likely that in the near future most of the paid channels might just declare themselves 'free'. If this happens then it is the multi-system operators who would be at the greatest receiving end of this entire process, because this trend would be a great impetus for new people and therefore competitors to enter the field. The overall monopoly that they gained as a result of procuring IRDs, would immediately topple. It is quite likely that the cable tv industry might be heading for a post 1995-like open competition situation. Another possibility is that if most of the popular channels keep functioning as paid channels at low tariffs, then a lot of small time cable operators in the wake of being able to earn only low profits might just surrender themselves to the big operators or even to the multi-system operators. It would be difficult though, to maintain and save the 'Subscriber Management System' and the set top boxes.
On the other side of this debate, we are still left with a very significant question that is in this entire scramble between CAS and CASH, is the State trying to pitch in a stake of its own and enter the competition or is it earnestly trying to save the consumer from getting trapped by the ill-effects that come out of a complicated market situation like the one we have at hand? It is likely that the various layers of this intention start unfolding in a few months from now, when the stakes involved start thinking about the implementation of CAS from a new perspective.
Important points of the Cable Network Regulation Ammendment Act 2003
Under the Cable Network Regulation Act 2003, there are two clauses for the viewing of channels. It's evident that earlier the consumers had the convenience of watching both, the free-to-air as well as paid channels after paying a certain fixed amount of money. But now all the channels have been divided into two categories.
The first category would have a minimum of 30 channels for which the consumer Would have to pay a monthly amount of Rs.72/-, alongside the service charges and the entertainment tax. Channels which don't charge any money from their consumers in return of their broadcast are termed free-to-air channels. The number of these channels would be anything between 30-60 in the first category. These channels would include information regarding various fields such as entertainment, education, sports, news, etc.
The second category would have paid channels. Paid channels meaning those for which the consumers have to pay money to the broadcasters. For these channels the operator would collect a fixed amount of money from the consumers and further it to either the broadcasters or the multi-system operators.
The number of the free channels would vary from state to state.
The Act has talked about an 'addressible system' (CAS has been born out of this). This is related to one such electronic gadget with the help of which the consumer can watch channels of his own choice. For this purpose a 'set top box' would be required which would act like a medium between the cable operator and the consumer. Through this 'set top box', the cable operator would get information of the channels that the consumer watches and this information will keep getting recorded in the 'Subscriber Management System' available with the operators. It is on the basis of this information that the operator will collect the adequate amount of money from the consumer.
The Act also has a clause that incase a consumer wishes to watch only the 'free-to-air' channels then he does not need to buy a set top box. This box is necessary on ly for the paid channels.
All operators would necessarily need to update themselves technologically for The 'Conditional Access System' or CAS so that they can implement this rule. Without this technology, they will not be able to feature the paid channels.
All cable operators would need to specify the prices of all 'free-to-air' as well as 'paid channels' separately either in their offices or give them to their consumers in a published format.
All cable operators would need to give the following information to broadcasters, the MSOs and the government :
The total number of cable tv consumers.
Monthly tariff (separately)
A separate count of consumers watching free and paid channels.
Information of the amount that the operators pay to the broadcasters.
Under the new rule, the cable tv operators would need to get the technology within a period of six months.