For a couch potato, it would be like an orgy. Imagine sinking into a chair at the end of a long day and having 650 TV channels to choose from. That is the total number of channels likely to be available for transmission in India by the end of 2009.
But it is unlikely that you will be able to watch many of these. Neither Cable TV nor DTH satellite services, have enough space to carry 650 channels, now or in the near future. Indian viewers on an average can access not more than 150 – 200 channels at a time.
There are currently 483 channels allowed to be on air and 163 awaiting clearance from the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B).
Unfortunately, switching on an approved channel isn’t as easy as picking up a newspaper from a shop.
One reason for this is that both DTH and Cable TV operators have no incentive to upgrade capacity. They benefit financially from their respective channel capacity shortages. In return for hefty “carriage fees” from channel owners, they often give some channels preference over others on their networks. The carriage fee for a new channel can range from Rs. 20 crore to Rs. 100 crore per year, depending on its genre. Experts estimate the annual carriage fee revenues for DTH and cable companies at between Rs. 1,200-1,400 crore. Adding enough capacity to carry all channels will kill this golden goose.
The real reason for the shortage of capacity is complex. Of the roughly over 90 million users across the country, 70-80 million are serviced by Cable TV. Majority of these are analogue in nature and can carry only 36 to 106 channels, as per a Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report. By upgrading networks to digital standards, cable operators can increase their channel capacity to 500-1,900 channels, says TRAI. The catch: It will take an investment ranging from Rs. 15,000 crore to Rs. 64,000 crore to digitise every analogue cable home in the country.
Anuj Gandhi, CEO of DEN Networks, a pan-India cable TV operator feels those estimates are too high. He says he only incurs a cost of Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000 to upgrade to digital. (One of the promoters of DEN is Raghav Bahl, also the founder and editor of Network 18, the publisher of Forbes India
But companies like DEN, Hathway or SITI still power less than half of Indian cable TV homes, the rest being handled by the over 60,000 small-time local operators without access to funds or technology needed for going digital. The upgrade will only happen if there is consolidation among the cable operators or if a big corporate gets interested.
On the DTH side, there are over 13 million subscribers currently. But today, every Indian DTH company is severely short of satellite transponders. With 12 transponders, Tata Sky has the most capacity of any DTH company today, but that carries only about 150-160 channels. In contrast DirecTV, the biggest US DTH company, has over 450 transponders that together deliver over 1,500 channels to its subscribers.
For Indian viewers, it’s a long break before the programme resumes.
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(This story appears in the 09 October, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)