The set-top box (STB) portability will soon be a reality enabling DTH and cable consumers to switch their service provider without changing their set top box.

The Telecom and broadcasting regulator TRAI, which has been working on this project for quite some time, is close to completing the trials for the new technology to be embedded in the set-top box, a senior official from TRAI told DNA Money.

TRAI had engaged CDoT (Centre for Development of Telematics), under the Department of Telecommunications, for developing a prototype to showcase the technology for interoperability of set-top boxes. The prototype and technology platform is ready and the trials are already on. “We expect this process to take another few months. Subsequently, a discussion/consultation will happen with all the stakeholders,” the official said.

Similar kind of portability exists in the telecom sector. Under mobile number portability, users can retain their numbers while changing their service providers.

Under the new technology for interoperability, all operator specific requirements will be embedded in a smart card and generic details in the box. So when one person switches to another service provider, he just needs to change the card without changing the set-top box. A pre-consultation paper on set-top box interoperability was earlier brought out by TRAI in February 2016 and a consultation note on it was released in August 2017.

In the consultation note in 2017, TRAI said the lack of technical interoperability of set-top boxes between different service providers has adverse effect on competition and service quality in the Pay-TV distribution market. “Non availability of STB in an open market is also a major hindrance to technological innovations. Whenever, a consumer changes its service provider, the STB of existing service provider becomes useless as the same STB cannot be used resulting into electronic waste,” TRAI had said.

A set-top box costs around Rs 1,400-1,600, while HD one costs little higher at around Rs 2,000, depending on the service provider. The amount is non-refundable. Because of the cost factor, consumers become reluctant to change their service provider even if there are issues.

However, the industry does not seem amused. Another executive from a firm said interoperability of STBs is just a hogwash. Industry players, who understand the technology being used and have been operating in the market already, know there is no merit to this move. “Unlike mobile sim card / network operator, interoperability is not possible in the DTH / cable TV space. The technology and platforms used by direct-to-home players and multi-system operators (MSOs) are not only different from one another but also between individual players in the market. Interoperability is only possible if there is one single platform for all players in the business,” he said.

Abneesh Roy, senior vice president - institutional equities, Edelweiss Securities, said, “The pricing of set-top boxes in India is quite affordable. However, the challenge with this affordability is to make it interoperability compliant as the capital expenditure will almost be similar to the cost of a new STB.”

He said the portability aspect is not comparable vis-a-vis mobile phone sim card / mobile network operators as technological challenges are quite different. Even if interoperability gets implemented, we don't see much action happening on the ground in the market, he said.

Subhashish Mazumdar, senior vice president – operations, Indusind Media & Communications (part of the Hinduja Group), said the move will certainly be helpful to the industry. However, it would have been good to implement this from the beginning. In fact, DTH companies' license condition was to be interoperable from day one. This would help the entire consumer base and industry can transparently move forward, based on actual capabilities.

There are few thousands multi system operators (MSOs) across the country while around 6-7 DTH operators offer their services. The official from TRAI said as per their own (operators) business plan, the service provider has chosen and implemented different technologies and their versions for set-top boxes and the adoption of different versions of technical standards by service providers is one of the reasons for non–interoperability of set top boxes.

Also, the ecosystem of a set-top box is extremely rigid. There exists an end-to-end verticals of STB manufacturer, chip designer, Conditional Access Solution (CAS) manufacturer, middleware, and Distribution Platform Operator (DPO). Effectively, these results in STB being specific to the combination of DPO, CAS provider and STB manufacturer leading to technical non-interoperable STBs.

“There has to be a practical solution to interoperability,” the official from TRAI said.

Cable TV and Direct-to-Home (DTH) platforms are the major distribution platforms for delivery of TV broadcasting services in India. Whereas, the DTH services delivered in digital mode since beginning, the migration of cable TV services, from analogue to digital, has also been completed with the implementation of Digital Addressable Cable TV systems (DAS) in the country. – DNA