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TDSAT’s observations on ZEEL’s RIO in light of MSOs’ petition

MUMBAI: The Telecom Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has stated that Zee Entertainment Enterprises’ (ZEEL) reference interconnection offer (RIO) requires serious consideration. This follows petitions filed by certain multi-system operators (MSOs) that the broadcaster’s RIO pricing is discriminatory and does not conform to the tribunal’s judgment.

Accordingly, TDSAT has asked ZEEL not to disconnect signals to IndusInd Media & Communications Ltd (IMCL), Star Broadband Services, Intermedia Cable Communications (ICC), Home Network and JPR Channel, among others.

The tribunal also instructed ZEEL to supply its TV signals to the MSOs in terms of the earlier arrangements subsisting before the issuance of the disconnection notice.

This means that ZEEL cannot go ahead with interconnection agreements based on the new RIO and will have to continue with ‘earlier subsisting arrangements’.

The phrase ‘earlier subsisting arrangements’ would include not only the previous interconnection agreements in writing between the two sides, even though those might have expired before the publication of the RIO, but also any carriage agreement/placement agreement/discount agreement in case the latter was co-terminus with the interconnect agreement, the tribunal clarified.

It also made it clear that in case of any default in payment in terms of the subsisting arrangement, it would be open to the broadcaster to proceed in accordance with law.

The petitioners have alleged that the RIO issued by ZEEL is discriminatory and against the order passed by the tribunal in Noida Software Technology Park Ltd (NSTPL) vs Star India/ZEEL matter.

They also alleged that the broadcaster has entered into deals with several MSOs between the passing of the judgment by the tribunal in the NSTPL case on 7 December 2015 and the issuance of its RIO on 11 May.

The tribunal had directed the broadcaster on 24 May to file in a sealed cover a list of all the interconnection agreements for the said period.

Accordingly, ZEEL counsel Tejveer Singh Bhatia submitted all the agreements before the tribunal on 2 June. He also filed the reply on behalf of his client. The MSOs can file rejoinders, if any, within two weeks.

Senior counsel Meet Malhotra, who was representing ZEEL, submitted that the RIO had been framed and issued directly in pursuance of the tribunal’s decision and it was being offered on a uniform basis and, therefore, there was no reason for the petitioner or anyone else not to accept it.

The tribunal, however, stated that the validity of the RIO and whether or not it was fully in compliance with the directions of the tribunal would need serious consideration.

The matter has been put under the head ‘for orders’ on 9 August, when the tribunal may hear the parties and make a proper and equitable interim arrangement till a final decision is rendered on this petition.

The tribunal had issued an order in the NSTPL matter directing that RIO would form the starting point for negotiations between broadcasters and platforms. It also stated that RIOs must reflect the rates of channels and bouquets. A la carte rate and the bouquet rates must abide by the ratio mandated in Clause 13.2A.12 and the RIO must clearly spell out any bulk discount schemes or any special schemes based on regional, cultural or linguistics considerations.

The RIO, the tribunal had said, must enumerate all the formats along with their respective prices in which the broadcaster may enter into a negotiated agreement with any distributor.

The tribunal had said that the judgment will take effect on 1 April 2016. In case TRAI issues any fresh Regulations before 1 April 2016, the broadcasters had to execute agreements on that basis. Since TRAI did not issue any fresh regulations, the TDSAT judgment came into force from 1 May. Subsequently, all broadcasters published fresh RIOs.