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Conditional access system blues
As the experience in Chennai shows, the contracts between cable operators and subscribers are designed to only protect the former. Pay TV customers have no rights.
Posted/Updated Monday, Nov 01 00:00:00, 2004

James Gordon

I have a rented CAS box in Chennai and the total monthly payment is roughly RS 265 (including the tax which can vary).  For this price I get 1O4 channels which includes 18 ENCODED PAY CHANNELS  which I have selected.

At the start I had to pay 3 cheques in advance :

- RS 1600 down payment on the CAS box

- RS 248 for the SMART CARD (to decode the pay channels)

- RS 248 for the installation.

This is where the trouble started. At first the box did not work. So I phoned the LMO, but was told 'it was not his fault, the problem was with the MSO'.  But - and here is the gist of the legal problem - my contract is with him, the local operator, so I have no legal connection to the MSO providing the channels, only with the person who passes the digital signal through his HQ, and collects the money.

Eventually my CAS box started working and I got all my 104 channels, with varying degrees of audio, together with the new CAS box display system which shows a long menu on the TV screen with all the channels for you to 'scroll down' to the one you want to watch. At first it took a while to change channels.

The first problems came when someone started disconnecting channels I wanted to watch. Again I phoned up the LSO but was told the operator could do nothing except inform the MSO of my 'request'.

Then there were 'cable cuts' (as in 'power cuts') and each time it was not their fault. It was either the MSO or my fault (the paying customer). I was accused of 'touching the connection', or a similar lie. They really take the subscriber as a complete idiot in these LMO offices. Anyway nobody answers their phone during prime time.

This example shows where it all goes wrong. You pay for something without any written guarantee of the service you should receive, and you have no redress against the lack of satisfaction because you have no legal connection with the service provider, the MSO. (Those towns in India where the subscriber is directly connected to the MSO will not have that problem, but they are in a minority.)

The 'product' for which I paid is announced nowhere. However I had signed a contract called 'HIRE AGREEMENT FOR SET-TOP-BOX'  with twenty two clauses, but these one-sided clauses are only to protect the LMO,  not the paying consumer :

Examples :

- the period shall be for a period of 3 years
- all taxes must be borne by the 'HIRER'
- all costs for loss, damage, etc must be born by the 'HIRER'.

(NB Presumably the CAS box object is not insured by the 'OWNER')
- as a 'HIRER' I must allow inspection of the CAS box 'at all reasonable times'.
- The 'OWNER' reserves the right to terminate the agreement...'
- After (3 yrs) the 'HIRER' undertakes to hand over ....
- THE 'HIRER' acknowledges that any breach of the terms would amount to a      

   criminal breach...

- the OWNER...can  enter premises to seize...etc
- The 'HIRER' shall pay...etc...etc
- THE 'OWNER' shall be free to change the rental charges...
- The 'HIRER' must disconnect the STB during rain...
- The SERVICE PROVIDER is not to blame for non functioning...???
- All disputes are subject to the jurisdiction of Courts at Chennai.

So the CAS consumer is placed in a judicial no-man`s land where he pays one person for receiving a service from another. In a court of law the subscriber would have no recourse against the MSO as he has no contract with the MSO (the well-financed company which sends the channels, and which financed the digital control room, and which purchased the CAS boxes in the first place).

This situation feared in the Rajya Sabha debate on CAS and the `Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Bill, voted 11/10/ 2002 (in which Mr Kapil Sibal expressed some very pertinent reserves) has come about.  Prior to that there was an MIB Task Force in 9/2001, which looked into these very problems before they arose, and indeed several of these specific points were discussed such as : 

- 'the existing chain from content maker to Provider to MSO to LMO

- need to make the whole system transparent

- Government should receive reports

- SMS (subscriber management system) should be transparent

- Public Service Channel should become 'Must Carry'

- Channels in Basic and Pay tiers (packages) to be announced.

The legal loophole between the Consumer and the 'LMO' remains as the biggest problem of the CAS system as practised in Chennai today.

The cost of the PAY packages remains stable, and the PAY channels are indeed offered individually 'A LA CARTE' as specified in the bill. The numbers of CAS subscribers is not announced (of course) but rumour speaks of 25 - 30 %, which would be a reasonable start in the West.

The debate over 'paying only for what one watches' is largely null and void as the CAS box itself comes with an SMS (managment system) which provides the channels selected by the subscriber. The 'A LA Carte SYSTEM' offers for instance ESPN at RS 29, and HBO at RS 20, and even the ZEE TURNER BOUQUET is priced at RS 55. All defendable in today`s market. Perhaps the scrambling of some sports events could have been a problem if, for instance, the Indian test cricket was offered on Star Sports one year, then on SET MAX, as these 2 channels are included in separate packages which require separate payments, but the problem becomes null and void when the test cricket is given to Doordarshan (which is of course FTA, or free).

Nevertheless CAS has a hitch : you can not stop the Service Provider from sending channels you have not asked for in the 'CAS FTA package' which is a surprising list of programmes offered free of charge to any subscriber with a CAS box.  So what`s the problem ?

In this list they must include by law the Public Service Channels (DD), but the MSO has also decided to 'add' other channels. As a result we are seeing programmes from Russia, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Korea, etc. In this list there are also FTA channels from all over India from Sun-TV to ETC Punjabi, plus some Public Service programmes in German, French, Italian, Spanish and American (Voice of America).

As the above list is 'FREE' the operators think they can play around with these channels, often on a Monday morning. That same evening you tune in to one of the 'freely offered channels' which you follow (perhaps you speak French, or you like Voice of America/CSPAN?) and it has gone! You phone up and there is nothing to do.  'It`s the MSO' they say, weakly. LSO employees do not understand remarks about cultural freedom.

In the West, a cable operator must publish by law his 'manifest' showing exactly what he is offering in a transparent manner. Indeed without this manifest he does not get the right to become a cable operator at all, and anyway subscribers frequently cancel their subscriptions (known as 'Churn') if the operator unhooks a channel.

In India the problem is more complicated, because first of all the 'chain of responsibility' is such that the economic punishment is diluted, and furthermore the DTH alternative is not yet in place. The subscribers have no place to go...yet.

In the West once an MSO has invested in several hundred digital CAS boxes and a few digital CAS 'headends' (tech centres) he normally would not want to lose one single subscription. The churn could just rub out his profit margin. Here they don`t seem to care.

Over the months, the CAS system in Chennai has proved annoying because of the lack of responsibility throughout the 'chain', and through the lack of cultural professionalism (knowing what programmes are showing), through the suspicious desire for secrecy, and the refusal to announce publicly what exactly they are 'selling'.

If there were a Cable Authority which authorised each cable operator only when every Last Mile Operator was specifically named, only when each TV channel was clearly announced, only when each change in the manifest was 'proposed' to the subscribers in advance, when the paying customer becomes king, then only will the cable business grow up.

For the moment the revenue must come from an uncomfortable mixture of subscriptions and advertising. Normally cable subscription should be made up of FTA channels with a certain audience at certain hours, and a PAY audience which is made up of specific demographic profiles.

How can an advertising professional propose an expenditure to an announcer when nobody knows exactly what the audience is? That is why we see so many spots over and over again on different channels in an expensive blanket coverage. As any student of advertising in the world will tell you, that is known as bad advertising (or 'lazy' advertising).

When cable is regulated, there will be demographics for every hour of every FTA channel, there will be qualitative data for the niche audiences watching the CAS pay channels. Such information exists for print magazines, why not television? This sort of segmentation will offer the possibility to media planners (ad agency people) of choosing certain places for certain ads.  In PAY cable it is possible that the 'number' of ads could go down (or go away during the film) and in consequence the 'number' of subscribers could go up, then the 'psych-graphics' could help them predict in advance which audience will watch what show at what hour. For the moment all they have is TAM.

Building up a reliable business is an important part of the cable industry. Only this way will cable improve, offering fare that really pleases the consumer instead of this blanket coverage in a vague hope of catching people.

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