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Tribunal order opens exit option for Direct-To-Home consumers

M. Dinesh Varma

‘Law cannot ordinarily be permitted to remain only on paper'

‘Should be implemented only in interest of consumers'

CHENNAI: Passing orders on a petition by a Chennai-based consumer organisation, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has called for laying down technology standards that would pave the way for technical and commercial interoperability of Set Top Boxes (STBs) of Direct-To-Home (DTH) operators.

In a 100-page judgment on a letter from the Tamil Nadu Progressive Consumer Centre that it suo motu treated as a petition, the TDSAT, while upholding interoperability as a condition of licence issued to DTH operators by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, directed the Union government to mandate the Bureau of Indian Standards to lay down standards for MPEG-4 technology within two months.

MPEG-4 technology

Accounting for a scenario in which a clutch of DTH operators provide services on the MPEG-2 format, with BIS specifications, or the more evolved MPEG-4 compression technology platform, for which standards are yet to be declared, the TDSAT stated that setting MPEG-4 as standard for STBs would allow consumers the freedom to choose an operator on MPEG-2 by inserting a CAM module in the CI (common interface) slot of the STB.

The MPEG-4 STBs are capable of decoding MPEG-2 signals while the converse is not technically feasible, and therefore stipulating standards for MPEG-4 would provide consumers with an effective exit option from one operator to another.

The original petition had complained that due to the lack of STB interoperability, which in itself violates clause 7.1 of DTH licensing conditions, consumers who wanted to switch to a DTH operator would end up with scrap hardware as they had to go in for a new STB of the new operator.

Set Top Boxes are designed as proprietary, and not as open architecture as stipulated in licensing norms, to suit specific DTH networks, the petition said.

“Our enquiry has revealed that non-interoperability is not only an unethical business practice but a gross violation of the terms and conditions of their own licences issued by the Ministry of I&B and contravention of the Quality of Service Regulations of TRAI,” the petitioner said.

It also raised the environmental hazard dimension, citing estimates that dead STBs, on account of migration of consumers from one DTH provider to another, were in excess of 2 million and constituted voluminous electronic junk that was neither recyclable nor biodegradable.

The TDSAT order noted that in relation to the provisions of the licence recommendation by TRAI, “the question of interoperability and in particular, the provisions relating to technical interoperability have not been complied with.”

“The law cannot ordinarily be permitted to remain only on paper.

“If it involves the interest of consumers, it should be implemented,” the order noted, while stating that non-compliance with the provision of technical interoperability warranted intervention from TRAI and the Union government.

The TDSAT stated that DTH operators have been offering services since 2002-03 and that BIS specifications are only available for MPEG-2 technology platform.

It sought an early decision by the Centre on the TRAI recommendation for a BIS specification that would provide for interoperability within the same and different technological combination.

The TDSAT also wanted TRAI to complete a consultation process with stakeholders and make its recommendations within six weeks of completion so that the government could pass appropriate orders within the next two months.

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