By: Sandeep Bhushan

It was billed as the last Open House Discussion (OHD) by TRAI on regulating ‘Platform Services’- a catch-all term to describe a whole range of non-broadcast content – cable and DTH- offered by Multi-Service Operators (MSO) to local consumers.

But the event (24 September 2014) presided over by the TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar in Delhi and comprising at least four other senior personnel in what appeared to be quasi-judicial proceedings proved to be a non-starter. Soon as Khullar started the proceedings the LCOs (the local/neighbourhood cable operator) numbering around 500 from across North India rose up angrily protesting what they alleged was the high-handed attitude of TRAI. The TRAI was only looking to benefit the MSOs they alleged.

IMG_0173The LCO’s gripe was not without basis- they were not purveyors of Platform Services, they argued, since under the amended rules in 2012 only MSOs could legally do so in Digitally Addressable Cable System (DAS) areas. In fact all cable operators numbering around 1.5 lakhs across North India were on the brink of bankruptcy because of loss of Platform Services revenues and excesses of MSO’s that seemed to have the backing of law.

The cable operators therefore demanded that their grievances be heard first, before any consultations on the OHD on Platform Services. They also protested the use of English as the language of discussion since most cable operators were not familiar with the language. Khullar and his team argued that a Hindi document on Platform Services was available on the TRAI website that could be accessed. He also indicated that he and his team were prepared listen to them provided the agenda of the OHD i.e. regulating Platform Services was discussed first.

But cable operators were in no mood to listen. A deadlock followed with neither side willing to budge from their position resulting in chaos with cable operators representing different states’ (relevant markets) shouting at the Chair with their own specific set of problems.

A whole contingent from Punjab for instance unfurled a banner protesting the excesses of the MSO, Fastway which they alleged had driven them out of business by using political clout of the Akali Dal-BJP government. Yet another contingent from Uttar Pradesh insisted that the high entertainment taxes levied on them by the state government should be discussed by TRAI.

FastwayThe pandemonium that lasted for about twenty minutes forced Khullar and his team to beat a hasty retreat, even as more and more cable operators descended on to the stage holding placards and banners shouting ‘Khullar hai hai’. Ultimately the OHD could not be held.

According to media reports LCO’s had been angry with TRAI in the earlier OHD’s in Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore. But nowhere did it face such a situation as in Delhi. The cable operators were right in their own way just as TRAI also had a point.

According to the terms of the amendment of the Cable Network (Amendment) Act 2011 passed by the parliament, cable distribution operations across the country have to be digitalized by 2014, now extended to 2016. Those cable operators who have not switched over to digital distribution by attaching themselves to MSO’s run the risk of their business sinking. This is because under changed rules only MSO’s can receive encrypted signals that are then decrypted at the consumer end.

IMG_0185The TRAI can do little in the face of an act passed by the parliament. As for LCO’s it is simply too late in the day for them since the second phase of digitalization is already underway. Most of them told this writer that they have been unable to comprehend the exact repercussions of this law which calls for expertise as well as a grip over English language. One Delhi LCO said, they were clueless about the various agreements signed with MSO’s in the past which has harmed their business tremendously.

Clearly for them time has run out. But the sort of chaos on evidence seems to suggest that cable operators are badly organised with each region only concerned with their specific set of grievances. This has only helped TRAI officials in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

For now the only way out of this mess for the cable operators lies in lobbying with the political dispensation and the government. TRAI can be of no help whatsoever at this stage.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had released a Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Platform Services on 23 June 2014. The stakeholders were invited to submit their comments to the Consultation Paper. The comments by CCMG can be found here.