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Indian Regulator Tackles IPTV

Regulatory uncertainty has held back the rollout of IPTV in India as cable operators and telcos argued over whether it should be regulated as a telecom or television service. But the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come out with a position paper that lays out its recommendations, and telecom operators are moving ahead with their plans to offer video services.

Last year the TRAI was pushed to withdraw its consultation paper on IPTV following vocal opposition from cable operators. They've argued that TV services being offered by telecom operators should come under the Cable Television Act of 1995, so they are regulated on a level playing field with cable services.

But the TRAI says there are three main problems with that approach, namely:
  • IPTV set-top boxes violate the Cable Act's requirement that free-to-air channels be transmitted without the need for additional equipment connected to the TV.

  • The use of different fixed and wireless protocols by different operators and the lack of standardization for IPTV services could violate a section of the Cable Act concerning the use of standard equipment.

  • According to guidelines for the transmission of TV channels, broadcasters can only provide program signals to cable operators/MSOs registered under the Cable Act or satellite operators registered under direct-to-home (DTH) rules. That would mean IPTV operators would be ineligible to receive content.

Says the TRAI: "IPTV when provided using telecom network is different than the services envisaged under Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act 1995."

The regulator has come to the conclusion that as long as telecom and cable operators have licenses to provide triple-play services, they can all provide IPTV under their respective legislation:

"The carriage of IPTV, if it is carried and delivered by a telecom service provider, will have to be regulated under [the] appropriate telecom license and if it is carried and delivered by a cable TV operator, then it will have to be regulated under Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act 1995."

That covers the first two concerns, and to the third point, TRAI suggests that the government's broadcast policy has to be amended: "Telecom operators permitted under their license to provide triple play services can get signals from broadcasters only when provision of clause 5.6 is suitably modified. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting may take necessary action in this regard so that IPTV service providers can get TV channel feeds to provide IPTV service."

The regulator states its objective is to bring "clarity on various regulatory provisions and licensing requirements to encourage stakeholders to launch IPTV services as and when they so desire," and it's inviting feedback from service providers until September 20.

State-run telecom carrier Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. (MTNL) , which operates in Mumbai and New Delhi, was the first Indian operator to launch commercial IPTV service last year. (See MTNL's IPTV Sparks Regulatory Debate.) The operator has straddled the lines between telecom and cable service because it holds a cable TV license.

Sridhar Pai, founder of analyst firm Tonse Telecom , says "the operators are ahead of the regulator," which has been "caught unawares" by the rapid development of new telecom services in India like IPTV.

The country's largest operators have all been piloting IPTV services for some time, and UTStarcom on Monday announced a deal with Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL), which has been running trials in Gurgaon with its RollingStream equipment. Bharti plans to offer its service in Gurgaon and throughout the New Delhi region by the end of the year. (See Bharti Picks UTStarcom, Bharti Watches UTStarcom for IPTV, and India's Telcos Watch MTNL for IPTV.)

Pai says MTNL's sister company, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) , has begun rolling out IPTV in a limited way -- although the service was officially launched in the cities of Bangalore, Pune, and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) last month, customers need to go and apply for the service to see if they can get connected. "For those people that have it, it's not connected to any backend application," he says. The operator is offering "very basic VOD and store and replay, store and forward... They're doing it in a very controlled manner."

The carrier had initially wanted to focus on expanding its DSL infrastructure and then roll out the applications over the network, Pai notes, but "they decided, 'why don't we start [offering services] so we have a head's up' " on the competition. "BSNL has already gone live with more than 500 locations that are DSL-capable; it's far ahead of the private operators."

According to a report in the Calcutta Telegraph, BSNL has hit a snag in offering its full package of channels because Sony and Indian broadcaster Zee have raised the issue of the broadcast policy -- illustrating TRAI's point that the guidelines as they are could prevent telcos from receiving TV channels.

— Nicole Willing, Reporter, Light Reading

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