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TRAI looking at possibility of making STBs interoperable

MUMBAI: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is looking at the possibility of making set-top box (STB) interoperable, a move that will allow consumers to change their cable TV or DTH service providers without having to migrate to another box to receive television signals.

TRAI has said that technical interoperability would shift the focus of the sector to providing better quality of services to the consumers at competitive prices.

The main technical reasons for non-interoperability of STBs are the different methods of entitlement management message (EMM) and entitlement control message (ECM) encryption, different modulation and compression standards.

Currently, only commercial interoperability of STBs is effective. TRAI has notified tariff order prescribing standard tariff packages for STBs, which provide an easy exit option to those consumers who want to change their service providers due to one reason or the other.

While MSOs are complying with the tariff order, DTH operators have challenged it in the Telecom Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT).

The implementation of STB interoperability will also make the STBs available in the open market, drastically reduce cost, and address the challenge of e-waste resulting from discarded STBs.

TRAI also stated that the availability of STBs in the open market will reduce capital requirement of service providers and improve the cash flow position of the industry.

The sector regulator has sought stakeholders’ views on how to achieve technical interoperability of STBs.

TRAI has floated a consultation paper ‘Pre-Consultation Paper on Set-Top Box Interoperability’, where it has asked stakeholders to give their opinion on the concerns that should be taken care of at the time of development of a framework of interoperable of STBs.

It has also asked for full details about the techno-commercial reasons for non-interoperability of STBs other than those mentioned in the consultation paper.

The stakeholders have been asked to provide plausible solutions for technical interoperability of STBs and their impact on sector growth. They can provide comments on any other issue that may be relevant for the development of technical interoperability of STBs.

30 million STBs lying unused

According to TRAI, 30 million STBs are lying idle or unused mainly because of non-interoperability of STBs as 55 million out of 85 million STBs sold are active as on December 2015. This information is based on reports submitted by DTH operators to TRAI.

“Considering an initial capital expenditure of about $25 per STB, a total of $750 million capital is lying unused. The exact data in respect of cable TV services is not available, but it is anticipated that the numbers of inactive STBs are very large,” TRAI said.

The current business model used in pay TV systems follows a circle of dependency wherein DTH operators, MSOs, CAS vendors and STB manufacturers have to work in a restricted vertical market, it added.

In this model, an STB manufacturer needs to pay licence fee to CAS vendor in order to use CAS in his STB. It will have to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the CAS vendor in order to enable his STB to work under security considerations adopted by this CAS.

The subscriber is compelled to use the specific STB predetermined by the operator. As such, he cannot access his entitlements via any other STB or receive content from any other operator, TRAI said.

Standardised STBs and piracy fears

Pay TV service providers have expressed fears that fake STBs may be used to capture information from a valid smart card and that information may be misused to produce fake/clone smart cards.

Further, the stakeholders have raised their concerns about the common scrambling algorithm (DVB-CSA), which is a 48-bit scrambling mechanism and can be broken with the help of high-capacity processors. Therefore, the service providers are reluctant to use DVB-CSA.

Due to concerns of piracy, operators integrate the conditional access sub-system into the STB chip.

“All this becomes an impediment when a subscriber wishes to migrate to a different service provider while attempting to use the same STB. This also leads to concerns relating to technical interoperability,” TRAI said.

Reasons for failure of technical interoperability

For technical interoperability of STBs, the government has mandated the provision of CI slot in the STBs deployed by DTH service providers based on the recommendations of TRAI. The CI slot exists in the already deployed DTH STBs.

However, this effort has not been fruitful in meeting the objective of interoperability in India owing to various reasons such as:

i. The availability of CI slot alone is not sufficient to achieve effective technical interoperability as other STB modules like tuner, middleware, OS, EPG, etc. also need to be updated upon change of service provider.

ii. DTH operators are following different versions of standards for compression and transmission.

iii. Most DTH operators have not offered customers the option of CAM card in place of STB.

iv. The cost of CAM card is more or less equal to a new STB. It may be due to non-availability of economies of scale.