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DTH operators may have to offer inter-operable boxes

Ashish Sinha  |  New Delhi 

Competition panel finds merit in consumer body complaint.

Direct to Home (DTH) operators could be asked to provide inter-operable set-top boxes to their customers with the Competition Commission of India (CCI) seeing prima facie merit in a complaint filed by a consumer organisation that it is in violation of competition laws.

The is already one month into its investigation that began on the basis of information filed by Consumer Online Foundation that says service providers are limiting competition among themselves by not providing consumers inter-operable set-top boxes that will allow them to switch operators without paying for a new box.

There are over 15 million subscribers currently among five private operators — Dish TV, Tata Sky, Reliance Big TV, Sun Direct and Airtel Digital TV.

Current DTH licensing norms only specify inter-operability between DTH operators offering services using MPEG-2 technology like Dish TV and Tata Sky (which are in compliance). However, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) is yet to set out norms for MPEG-4 technology (used by Sun Direct, Big TV and Digital TV), so the boxes of Dish TV or Tata Sky are not portable with the services of the MPEG-4 DTH operators.

"I am in the process of preparing my report so I cannot discuss details of the case. I will be submitting it within next month or a month-and-half," said K K Sharma, advisor (law), CCI, and the investigating officer in the matter. 

sources, however, said they found merit in the complaint that consumers should be able to have the choice to buy boxes separately from the DTH service and access any operator through it.

Gautam Shahi, advocate with APJ-SLG Law Offices, who is handling the case for Consumer Online Foundation, said operator-set-top box link is a direct violation of licensing conditions. "There is a prima facie tie-in of DTH services with set-top boxes that violates Section 3 of the Competition Act, 2002," he said.

Apart from directing DTH operators to make their boxes inter-operable, the CCI, under section 27 of Competition Act, 2002, may also penalise them 10 per cent of the revenues of the last three financial years.

Technical experts say DTH subscribers may be able to switch from their current service providers to new DTH players by installing an add-on device called a transcoder to their set-top boxes. The transcoder is expected to cost Rs 400 to Rs 600 at subsidised rates. According to sources, BIS has already made a technical report in the matter.

DTH operators like Dish TV and Tata Sky have said that they are inter-operable in line with the DTH licensing norms. “We are in full compliance of the DTH licensing conditions as far as operability of MPEG 2 boxes go,” said Anshuman Sharma, chief legal and regulatory affairs officer, Tata Sky.

Dish TV, the largest private DTH operator, said its boxes are technically and commercially inter-operable according to BIS specifications but not with Big TV, Sun Direct or Digital TV which use MPEG 4 boxes for which guidelines have not been set.

First Published: Tue, August 11 2009. 00:30 IST