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Priya Ganapati in Mumbai | March 23, 2004

With the 'CAS' issue not yet resolved, there's 'DTH' coming up to muddle things up for you and me.

Doordarshan will launch its Direct-To-Home telecast from April 1. Broadcasters like Star and Zee are pushing hard for DTH services in India too.

So what is this DTH all about? How, if at all, does it help the customer? Is it good? Let's find out.

What is DTH?

DTH stands for Direct-To-Home television. DTH is defined as the reception of satellite programmes with a personal dish in an individual home.

DTH does away with the need for the local cable operator and puts the broadcaster directly in touch with the consumer. Only cable operators can receive satellite programmes and they then distribute them to individual homes.

How does DTH work?

A DTH network consists of a broadcasting centre, satellites, encoders, multiplexers, modulators and DTH receivers.

A DTH service provider has to lease Ku-band transponders from the satellite. The encoder converts the audio, video and data signals into the digital format and the multiplexer mixes these signals. At the user end, there will be a small dish antenna and set-top boxes to decode and view numerous channels. On the user's end, receiving dishes can be as small as 45 cm in diametre.

DTH is an encrypted transmission that travels to the consumer directly through a satellite. DTH transmission is received directly by the consumer at his end through the small dish antenna. A set-top box, unlike the regular cable connection, decodes the encrypted transmission.

How does DTH really differ from cable TV?

The way DTH reaches a consumer's home is different from the way cable TV does. In DTH, TV channels would be transmitted from the satellite to a small dish antenna mounted on the window or rooftop of the subscriber's home. So the broadcaster directly connects to the user. The middlemen like local cable operators are not there in the picture.

DTH can also reach the remotest of areas since it does away with the intermediate step of a cable operator and the wires (cables) that come from the cable operator to your house. As we explained above, in DTH signals directly come from the satellite to your DTH dish.

Also, with DTH, a user can scan nearly 700 channels!

Does one need to put two dish antennae and pay double subscription per month if one has two TVs?

For multiple connections in the same premises, one can use the same connection. However, every television set will need to have an individual STB.

Also, DTH is a national service and the STBs enable a viewer to change service providers without changing the STB, even if one moves from one city to another.

Can a CAS set-top box be used for DTH?

No, these are different set-top boxes.

Why is DTH is being discussed now?

Doordarshan plans to launch its DTH telecast from April 1. The government has said it will provide 10,000 dishes free across eight states for increased community viewing of the DTH service. The government is estimated to be investing over Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) in this DTH venture.

There are four serious contenders for DTH services in India: Doordarshan, Star, Zee, and Data Access.

Is DTH superior to cable TV?

Yes. DTH offers better quality picture than cable TV. This is because cable TV in India is analog. Despite digital transmission and reception, the cable transmission is still analog. DTH offers stereophonic sound effects. It can also reach remote areas where terrestrial transmission and cable TV have failed to penetrate. Apart from enhanced picture quality, DTH has also allows for interactive TV services such as movie-on-demand, Internet access, video conferencing and e-mail. But the thing that DTH has going for it is that the powerful broadcasting companies like Star, Zee, etc are pushing for it.

So why are broadcasters pushing for DTH?

In DTH, the payments will be made directly by the subscriber to the satellite company offering the service.

A big problem that broadcasters face in India is the issue of under-reporting of subscribers by cable operators.

Consider the cable operators pyramid. Right at the top is the broadcaster. Next comes the Multi Service Cable Operator (MSOs) like Siticable, InCable, etc. Below them are the Access Cable Operators (ACOs) or your local cable guy who actually lays the wires to your house.

The local cable operators or the ACOs then allegedly under-report the number of subscribers they have bagged because they have to pay the MSOs something like Rs 30-45 per household. Showing a lesser number of households benefits ACOs.

With no way to actually cross check, the MSOs and the broadcasters lose a lot. Broadcasters do not earn much in subscription fees and are mostly dependent on advertisement revenue to cover their costs, which is not sustainable and does not offer high growth in revenues for broadcasters.

The way out of this is to use a set-top box so that it will be clear how many households are actually using cable or going for DTH where broadcasters directly connect to consumers and can actually grow revenues with a growth in the subscriber base.

Why do Doordarshan, Zee, Star think DTH will work in India?

Today, broadcasters believe that the market is ripe for DTH. The prices of the dish and the set-top box have come down significantly. Overall investments required in putting up a DTH infrastructure has dropped and customers are also reaping the benefits of more attractive tariffs.

The major thing that DTH operators are betting on is that the service is coming at a time when the government is pushing for CAS (conditional access system), which will make cable television more expensive, narrowing the tariff gap between DTH and cable.

Will DTH be cheaper than cable or more expensive?

DTH will be definitely more expensive than cable as it exists today.

A set-top box is a must for DTH. Earlier, when CAS made set-top box mandatory for households, the costs between DTH and cable would not have been too wide.

But CAS on the backburner now -- which means no set-top box (a must for DTH), the price gap between DTH and cable will be wide.

In Oct 2002, Siticable, which is owned by Zee, said that the cost of the installation equipment, which includes the receiver dish and the set-top box, would be priced at around Rs 3,900. Siticable is looking to rope in 1 million subscribers in 15 months.

Other estimates say that digital cable set-top box may cost Rs 4,000, a DTH decoder dish is unlikely to cost less than Rs 7,000.

DTH's minimum subscription could be priced around Rs 500 per month.

Some reports say that an entry level DTH STB will cost about Rs 7,000 (including taxes and installation cost at consumers end). A more advanced STB with value added features like PVR (Personal Video Recorder), PSTN connectivity, Gamming console, channel management system, etc. may cost as much as Rs 15,000.

What is the history of DTH in India?

DTH services were first proposed in India in 1996. But they did not pass approval because there were concerns over national security and a cultural invasion. In 1997, the government even imposed a ban when the Rupert Murdoch-owned Indian Sky Broadcasting (ISkyB) was about to launch its DTH services in India.

Finally in 2000, DTH was allowed. The new policy requires all operators to set up earth stations in India within 12 months of getting a license. DTH licenses in India will cost $2.14 million and will be valid for 10 years. The companies offering DTH service will have to have an Indian chief and foreign equity has been capped at 49 per cent. There is no limit on the number of companies that can apply for the DTH license.

So, what's the buzz? Will DTH finally be the one that rules?

The cable system is well entrenched in India and is showing quite rapid growth. If DTH had come to India in 1996-97 (like Star had originally attempted), then it could have made a significant breakthrough.

Europe is an example of this. DTH developed there before cable and now controls nearly 80 per cent of the total satellite television subscriber base. But in US, cable rules because it came before DTH.

DTH will definitely cut into the existing cable user base. It will make the local cable operator less important and take business away from him. It will give consumers greater choice.

But it is likely to be an up market premium product and most middle class households will stick to cable.

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