A new horizon

Print edition : February 27, 2004

With its direct-to-home initiative, which would allow the transmission of the public broadcaster's content to remote and inaccessible regions of the country, Prasar Bharati hopes to increase its subscriber base and, ultimately, eliminate the cable operator from the distribution equation.

THE day is not far off when television viewers in India could access the channels of their choice without the intermediary cable operators even in remote and rural areas. Prasar Bharati, India's public service broadcaster, is all set to launch the direct-to-home (DTH) service in April.

Doorsarshan's outdoor broadcasting van, at an event in New Delhi.-V.V. KRISHNAN

In recent years, DTH has become the buzzword in the satellite broadcasting industry because of the immense opportunities it offers to broadcasters and viewers alike. Hitherto, broadcasting in India has been through terrestrial, cable and satellite (C-band) modes. The growing demand from viewers for select information, entertainment and programmes as well as the mounting pressure to conserve the rapidly dwindling frequency spectrum have forced broadcasters to look for an economical and technologically viable medium. The DTH technology fills the bill. The reasons are not far to seek. It facilitates transmission of several digital channels through a single powerful transponder on a satellite. Video and CD quality audio can be beamed directly to the viewers who possess a dish of a size ranging from 0.6 m to 1.2 m. The dish could be mounted on lawns or windowsills conveniently. This transmission is carried out in Ku-band, that is, from 11 GHz to 14 GHz.

Prasar Bharati is installing a Ku-band earth station under a Rs.164-crore pilot project at Todapur in Delhi to uplink a bouquet of 30 channels. All these would be free-to-air channels - 15 of Doordarshan (DD) and 15 private - besides a few radio (CD stereo) channels of All India Radio (AIR), which are likely to be operational by April 2004. The Department of Space has been approached for providing high-power transponders with 54dB EIRP for uplinking these channels. Viewers will be able to receive all 30 channels with an initial investment of about Rs.3,000-Rs.4,000, without any recurring expenses. Over a period of time the number of channels will be increased with additional hardware. According to sources in Prasar Bharati, set-top-boxes (STBs) for DTH will be simple and cost-effective.

The Prasar Bharati also proposes to distribute STBs and satellite dishes to public institutions such as anganwadis, schools, public health centres, panchayats, youth clubs, and cooperative societies in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttaranchal, besides the northeastern region, where individual State coverage is less than the national average. In addition to this, some cable head ends would be set up to distribute programmes received through Ku-band to clustered population areas.

FOR some time now there has been a public debate on the pros and cons of the DTH service. The main advantage claimed for DTH transmission is that it facilitates the use of small dish antennas, which could be easily installed in individual homes, and provides a large number of services within the same satellite or transponder. Its main disadvantage is that the required video and audio sources should be located at the same place so that they can be multiplexed and uplinked to the satellite.

However, the immense opportunities it offers to broadcasters and viewers far outweigh the disadvantages. The broadcasters would be able to introduce a large number of new interactive applications such as Internet access, e-mail, near video-on-demand and pay-per-view. Besides these, they could use it for public service messages through high-powered transponders in a single bouquet to the viewers. The net result will be an increase in the number of viewers and expansion of the customer base. Another benefit to the broadcasters will be that it keeps out intermediaries like cable operators who could distort the subscription income. It is considered the broadcasters' best bet for direct access to subscribers with revenue collection alongside. For the viewers the attraction will be the better quality of transmission and the value-addition DTH offers.

For Prasar Bharati, there are quite a few compelling reasons to go in for DTH. One of its main objectives is to ensure that DD and AIR programmes reach every household in the country. Currently, DD-1 (National Service) covers 90.3 per cent of the population and 78.6 per cent of the area, while DD-2 (News Service) covers about 44.4 per cent of the population and 21.1 per cent of the area. The coverage is through a network of 1,400 terrestrial transmitters. The rest of the population remains uncovered by existing terrestrial and cable systems because of the difficult terrain in which it lies. According to one estimate, it would cost Rs.3,500 crores to increase the number of transmitters to achieve full coverage. Even if such an investment is made, only one channel can be transmitted by one transmitter. It is in this context that free-to-air DTH broadcasting has emerged as a viable alternative for universal coverage of the population with television programmes.

It is pointed out that in addition to DD-1 and DD-2 all other channels of Doordarshan and some AIR services could be carried as a free-to-air bouquet through DTH. The investment required for this would be much lower than that needed for terrestrial expansion. In terms of the time-frame for implementation too the DTH route has an advantage in that it would ensure 100 per cent coverage for both DD-1 and DD-2 within a few months where as terrestrial expansion would take a few years. The other factors in favour of DTH are that national regional channels could be viewed anywhere in the country through small dish antennas and country-wide educational services and health programmes would be viable. The reluctance of the existing cable network to carry DD channels despite legal provisions is also an important factor in Prasar Bharati's decision to go in for its own DTH service.

Prasar Bharati would also not like to be left behind domestic and overseas broadcasters in the race to make use of an advanced technology. The DTH may not be a revolutionary or a new concept but it is a more advanced version of the already existing and familiar satellite technology based on C-band transponders.

In a typical DTH system, all the channels originating from a single location (such as Delhi) or which are brought to a single location from different originating centres can be digitally compressed, multiplexed and transmitted to the satellite. A high-power Ku-band transponder located on the satellite will beam down the signals, which can be received by subscribers or cable operators. Since the DTH system proposed by Doordarshan is free-to-air, the conditional access system (CAS) would not be required. Only pay-channel operators would need such solutions.

A direct-to-home system.-S. MAHINSHA

DTH service is operational in the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa and a few other countries. It is estimated that soon the number of households receiving DTH satellite television could cross a 100 million worldwide. Europe has acquired the distinction of having the world's most-developed DTH market.

With an estimated 17 million subscribers, it accounts for 80 per cent of the total satellite television subscriber base in the continent. The largest and the most successful DTH operator in the United Kingdom is BskyB. It formed a joint venture company with BT (British Telecom), HSBC (Midland Bank) and Matsushita (Panasonic), which has reached a subscriber base of 1 million in just about 10 months of launching. Its current subscriber base is about 7 million. The other players in Europe are Canal SatEllite NumErique (France), TPS (France), ABSat (France), DF1 (Germany), Premiere (Denmark), Telepiu (Italy), Canal Plus Nederland (the Netherlands), Canal Satellite Digital (Spain), Via Digital (Spain), Wizja TV (Poland) and Canal Digital (Scandinavia).

In the U.S., where cable TV is entrenched, DTH is steadily growing since its launch in 1994. The main DTH operators in the U.S. are DirecTV/USSB, Dish Network (EchoStar), AlphaStar and PrimeStar. There are about 18 million DTH subscribers in this region and the service operators provide a number of value-added services.

In Japan the main DTH operators are NHK (BS), DirecTV, SkyPerfecTV and WOWOW with a total subscriber base of about 15 million. NHK is the only public broadcaster, which started an analog DTH service of its own much earlier and has a subscriber base of about 10 million.

In the Asian region, DTH has not penetrated to the extent it has in Europe and the U.S.. This is attributed to strict regulations in some countries. But the situation is changing with the process of deregulation of satellite broadcast industry in the region. In recognition of the vast growth potential of DTH in Asia, a number of broadcasters in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia had started the DTH services.

The Indian situation is similar to the one in the U.S., where the cable system was well developed when DTH was introduced. Currently, cable operators provide subscribers with 80-odd channels for about Rs.200 a subscriber a month. It is therefore felt that unless the cost of the DTH service is comparable to the existing cable service, it may be confined to a few media savvy or cash-rich urban markets. There is a view that the system could have made a significant impact if it had been introduced before the cable system.

As of now, DTH would be a premium product catering to upmarket viewers, as it would be prohibitively expensive for both DTH operators and the consumers. DTH, in its present format, is therefore, not likely to perturb the cable operators. But ultimately pricing and content would decide the success of the DTH service in the country, which has an estimated 80 million TV households, 50 per cent of them accessing channels through cable on a payment ranging from Rs.200 to Rs.300 a month and the rest receiving programmes through terrestrial medium free of cost. The cost of the DTH system may fall with the increase in its penetration over a period of time but initially its high cost will limit its ability to make a foray into semi-urban or rural areas.

The competition in the satellite broadcast market is expected to intensify and one of the ways in which broadcasters can set themselves apart from others is to offer local programming or a fair that caters to niche markets. In fact, a far greater variety of choices would be needed to entice and retain subscribers in the region.

The success of the DTH service would depend very much on capitalising on the underserved markets and focusing on strategies that meet the demand existing in these markets. Adequate financing is also essential for the DTH system to penetrate the market. Owing to the high start-up costs involved in setting up the infrastructure for digital services, companies have to be prepared to go through a long period of negative cash flow, until the number of subscribers pass the break-even mark.

In view of the hardships faced in collecting the exact revenue from cable operators on the basis of the actual subscriber base, major pay TV service providers will go the DTH way and may demand higher share in the revenue from cable operators. This will put pressure on the cable operator and the cable subscription may also go up. It is under such circumstances that the demand for DTH is expected to go up.

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