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Ground-based broadcasters should come under a separate regulatory framework: TRAI

MUMBAI: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) wants to bring ground-based broadcasters, who provide local channels to the cable operators, under a separate regulatory framework.

Differentiating between platform services channels run by the distribution platform operators (DPOs) and ground-based broadcasters, the TRAI has recommended that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) should establish a regulatory framework for them.

“The framework shall be the same as the framework contained in the uplinking/downlinking guidelines of MIB for traditional satellite-based broadcasters, to the extent applicable to the ground-based broadcast model. Thus, clearances/ permissions for spectrum usage from the DoS [Department of Space] and WPC [Wireless Planning & Coordination] shall not apply,” TRAI said.

Who are the ground-based broadcasters?

Ground-based broadcasters are neither the satellite-based broadcasters nor are they the platform services channels run by the DPOs. They transmit the content terrestrially to the headend of the cable TV network. There is no uplinking or downlinking of such channels.

DPOs TV channelThe ground-based broadcasters have a wider reach than the local channels run by a DPO since they can enjoy distribution of more than one cable TV network. But they cannot match the reach of a satellite-based channel.

However, they are similar to traditional satellite-based channels with regard to the genres of programme content and the carrying of advertisements. The ad-revenue accrues to the channel owner. Consequently, these ground-based broadcasters have all the rights for the content carried and are responsible for the same.

Why there is need of a separate regulatory framework for ground-based channels

Since there is no clear regulatory framework for ground-based broadcasters, they cannot register their channels with the MIB and are, thus, not legally recognised as ‘broadcasters’ either.

TRAI said that while it was considering the issues related to platform services, it became clear that  broadcasters of such ground-based channels also have to be brought within the proposed regulatory framework. This would ensure that all types of broadcasters and their channels available on any television distribution network in India are registered with the MIB.

“During the consultation process, the ground-based broadcasters have themselves represented to be granted legitimacy through an appropriate regulatory framework,” it noted.

It has separately come to the notice of the authority that a satellite-based broadcaster has licensed the content, as carried on its satellite-based channel, for distribution terrestrially on a national MSO’s network.

“Being a national MSO the viewership of the ground-based channel is almost as large as that of the satellite-based channel. The reason to do so may be largely due to the lower cost of distribution on the terrestrial network. Such instances show up the need to have all ground-based broadcasters and ground-based channels covered by a comparable regulatory framework,” TRAI said.

It further added that because of the growing reach of the terrestrial optical-fibre network, these channels potentially offer a comparable viewership to that of satellite broadcast, sometimes at a significantly lower cost.

“If the regulatory requirements for ground-based broadcasting remain unclear, with the hugely differentiated costs attached, this will create an arbitrage opportunity for broadcasters, encouraging them to take the terrestrial route. Given that the consultation process for PS included detailed comments on ground-based broadcasting by the stakeholders, the Authority decided suo motu to make recommendations on this matter so that all issues are comprehensively covered,” TRAI clarified.

What regulatory framework has TRAI recommended

Considering the smaller reach of some of the ground-based broadcasters, a state should be taken as a unit and a reach in 15 or more states should be taken as a pan-India presence.

“Given that about 90 per cent of India’s population lives in about 15 most populous states, presence of a ground-based broadcasters’ channel in 15 states in India may be taken to be equivalent to a pan-India presence,” TRAI explained.

The states that are members of the North Eastern Council (NEC) can be considered to be equivalent to one state, TRAI added.

At the pan-India level, a ground-based broadcaster shall take on the same obligations as a traditional satellite-based broadcaster. A smaller footprint shall entail a pro rata obligation equivalent to 7 per cent of the traditional satellite-based broadcasters’ obligation for every state where the channel is distributed. The pro rata reduction shall be applicable to the net worth requirement, permission and annual fee, TRAI stated.

TRAI has also recommended that a ground-based broadcaster, vertically integrated with a DPO, shall be subject to all the restrictions on vertically integrated entities recommended by the Authority in its ‘Recommendations on issues related to new DTH licences’ issued on 23 July 2014.

The regulatory framework

Chalking out the main difference between PS and ground-based TV channels, TRAI said that in the case of a PS channel the legal rights to broadcast the content, the responsibility thereof and the ad-revenue received therefrom belong to the DPO on whose network the PS channel is being carried.

“Whereas for a ground-based channel even though it is retransmitted on the same DPO’s network, the rights for the content, responsibility thereof and the ad-revenues therefrom belong to the channel owner i.e. the ground-based broadcaster and not the DPO,” it said.

Further, as per its recommendations, a PS channel can only be distributed to the DPO’s own subscribers, while the ground-based broadcaster, like a traditional satellite-based broadcaster, is not confined to any one TV distribution network. Its programmes/channels may be simultaneously broadcast/transmitted to multiple DPOs for further retransmission.

In regulatory terms, it said the framework for both traditional satellite and ground-based broadcasters ought to be the same, except to the extent that some of the permissions and clearances, such as those for spectrum usage from DoS and WPC Wing, will not be required.

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