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March 29: A parliamentary sub-committee formed last year to frame a comprehensive national media policy recommended today that private broadcasters should be allowed to transmit from withing the country. It also cautioned against cross-media ownership and foreign ownership of the media.
Although in the past few years India has been crowded with satellite TV channels, most of them (or at least those that are profitable) based on Indian programming, the only agency permitted to broadcast within India, as in previous decades, remains the state-owned Doordarshan. A little over a year ago this monopolisation of the electronic media was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which directed that private broadcasters be allowed, and called for an independent regulatory authority. The government, which did not seem particularly unhappy, prepared legislation to implement the verdict; it was ready in July, since when the government has been sitting on it.
Parliament was slower to start, but has finally come around with its recommendations favouring full implementation of the Court's verdict (it could not do otherwise). The sub-committee suggested that the broadcasting regulator function independent of the government, and that its members "represent all sections of society" - both important aspects of the legislation as described to The Indian Techonomist by Broadcasting Secretary Bhaskar Ghose last June. It has also suggested that Doordarshan and All India Radio be converted into autonomous (though government-owned) agencies, like the BBC; and that non-commercial broadcasting by local bodies should be encouraged, perhaps making better use of Doordarshan's vast nationwide transmission infrastructure.
The sub-committee came out against cross-media ownership, which is silly in a country where every major newspaper and magazine produces TV programming. It said that foreign ownership of broadcasters, whether direct or indirect, should not be permitted. This is also silly, as it shows the members never read the licences for basic telephony (of which several have already been issued) which allow phone companies to set up cable TV networks. Telecom service providers can have foreign equity of up to 49%. The committee, which included left-wing members of Parliament, said that encrypted pay TV channels should not be allowed to charge whatever they wish, as "the common man" must have access. Yes, this is silly too, for thanks to the reluctance of that very "common man" to pay for individual channels, Indian pay TV rates are probably the lowest in the world. Star Movies, the first successful pay channel in India (and part of Rupert Murdoch's Asian Star TV network), barely charges a few hundred dollars per cable network - with no additional per-household rates. As it is, Indian homes pay just $4 per month for their cable TV; but this adds up to $600 million in subscriptions alone, growing at over 30% annually.
The government has had its reasons for going slow - broadcasting is not a priority, and general elections were imminent. They are now to be held later this April, which means media policy will remain static till afterwards. The ruling Congress party may not win, and in any case the present Broadcasting Secretary is not as famous for progressive views as his predecessor who supervised the preparation of the legislation last June. But neither alternative winners are likely to unnecessarily delay the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict. The Bharatiya Janata Party, a right-wing organisation, will probably go ahead with broadcasting reform soon enough, if it wins. And it was a member of the National Front, a loose left-of-centre coalition, who headed the sub-committee that has recommended the entry private broadcasters.
Till then, programmes for the highly successful music-based Channel V (also part of Star TV) - which has roundly defeated MTV with its self-mocking Indian attitude - will be produced in Bombay, shipped to Hong Kong, uplinked to Asiasat, and received in Indian homes - back in Bombay.
For the original report on the Supreme Court verdict, with exclusive interviews with former Chief Justice of India P N Bhagwati and former Solicitor-General Soli Sorabjee, see http://dxm.org/techonomist/legal.html
For more on the Indian Broadcasting Authority and the government's broadcasting reform legislation see http://dxm.org/techonomist/regu.html#IBA
Birla Communications, the joint venture between AT&T and India's Aditya Birla Group, plans to invest nearly $150 million over the next three years on building cellular networks in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in western India, for which it received licences earlier this year. Birla-AT&T plans to cover most major towns in each state within its first three years, by which time it hopes to have reached a subscriber base of over 60,000.
Birla-AT&T will have to compete with the second licensee in each of the circles. In Maharashtra it is a partnership between US West and India's BPL, a consumer-electronics firm that also runs a cellular network in the state capital Bombay, for which separate licences had been issued (along with Delhi, Calcutta and Madras) and where service started last year. In Gujarat AT&T will face Fascel, a venture between Israel's Bezeq, Thailand's Shinawatra and India's HFCL (a small company that became famous for its high bids for basic telephony, where it won four licences). Birla-AT&T will, like its competitors, pay a licence fee of approximately $571 million in Gujarat and $528 million in Maharashtra, over the 10-year licence period.
As cellular service in Maharashtra would revolve around Bombay (now renamed Mumbai), Birla-AT&T is expected to negotiate a roaming arrangement with BPL-US West's competitor in that city, Hutchison Max. The negotiations will be on matters financial, not technical - all cellular licences in India requre the usage of GSM, the European digital cellular standard with base-to-mobile encryption.
Meanwhile, Modicom Network, a venture of the Indian B K Modi Group that has been having trouble trying to replace its original foreign partners (Vanguard Communications and Telecom International) with Motorola and Lazard Asia, has failed once again to pay for its cellular licences. The joint venture between India's computer giant HCL, the Hindujas and Singapore Telecom, which won a cellular licence for the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is also shaky. Singapore Telecom wants to reduce its equity, and the Indians are looking for another foreign partner. Interest is accumulating on the two licensees' unpaid fees, and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has set a deadline of April 15 for payment.
For the previous report on Modicom-Motorola see the March 18 bulletin. On HCL-Hinduja-Singapore Telecom, see March 25. URL - http://dxm.org/techonomist/news/
India's leading computer magazine, PC Quest, gave away 50,000 free copies of Linux in the Spring 1996 CD-ROM accompanying its March issue. Of course, it cannot be predicted how many readers will grow to use Linux - a free implementation of the Unix operating system for the Intel x86 platform that is popular with the technically savvy around the world. However, this is likely to be at least as successful as PC Quest's last CD-ROM, for Winter 1995, which included free trial copies of IBM's OS/2 and PC DOS 7, particularly as it is a fully working version of Linux.
India has a relatively high usage of Unix, partly because IBM's absence from the country in the 1980s made companies turn away from proprietary mainframes. Although leading implementations of Unix are from Sun and SCO, Linux has been growing popular within organisations who have in-house technical expertise. They reason that the high price of brand-label Unix versions do not come with sufficiently high levels of technical support, so Linux makes sense. One of the biggest Linux installations is at the Times of India, the country's largest newspaper group. Its nationwide internal network has, over the past few years, been converted almost entirely to the Internet's TCP/IP protocol, running on Linux and other GNU Public Licence (GPL) software.
See also http://dxm.org/techonomist/news/os2pcq.html