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Customers will get choice to select whichever channel they want: TRAI chief

Ram Sewak Sharma, chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), couldn’t be happier about the recent win in the Supreme Court. Star India had challenged — unsuccessfully —Trai’s jurisdiction in coming out with a tariff order and interconnect regulation for the broadcastNSE -0.92 % sector.

Sharma has been fighting a battle with broadcasters and distribution platforms to rewrite the rules of the age-old regime and bring transparency in the entire value chain. Sitting in his plush office in the capital, Sharma, who recently got a two-year extension, spoke to ET about this long-awaited victory, its impact on the consumer, and the need to overhaul the sector. Edited excerpts…

Do you think the tariff order will achieve its purpose, now that Trai has won the case in the Supreme Court?

Every regulation has to have some purpose. The purpose of this regulation was to essentially make the entire framework of this broadcast sector completely transparent, provide a choice to consumers, and ensure a fair deal amongst our audience. Each stakeholder depends on another — customers depend on the local cable operator, who is dependent on the multi-system operator and the MSO is dependent on the broadcaster. Ultimately, everybody depends on the customers. So, there's an interrelationship. The more transparent the relationship, the better its operation because the vagueness in the relationship gives rise to all kinds of disputes and litigations.

So the entire exercise was to bring in transparency?

Yes, the idea was to make the value chain absolutely transparent and give choice to the consumer. So, if a channel is priced at an MRP of Rs 5, the customer will get it at Rs 5. Customers need not be bothered about the share of the retailers, wholesalers or distributors. Similarly, free-to-air channels will be available for free. Second, it is also important that the customer gets the choice to select whichever channels she wants. Basically, no channel should be shoved down the throat of the customers. Customers will be able to take a-la-carte channels. While a broadcaster is allowed to offer bouquets, he must provide an a-la-carte option.

Why are broadcasters bothered with the regulation then?

Exactly! Broadcasters are allowed to set whatever price they want for the premium, or niche channels. Yes, they cannot club those channels with others in the bouquet. For example, if there is a Golf Channel which very few people watch, and may want to pay Rs 50 or Rs 100, you keep that price, but don’t combine it with other channels.

Basically, we are asking them not to combine any valuable commodity with the bouquet and FTA with pay channels.

Industry has not been constrained in any manner. They can price the products the way they want; we're not interfering with them. Transparency is also required because a broadcaster has 20-odd channels, of which only one or two are driver channels, but he is pushing all the channels and deriving value piggybacking on those two.

Will this bring the price of consumers’ monthly bill down?

This is similar to the telecom rental concept that we have put in here. There is a monthly rental of Rs 130 (plus taxes), and you get 100 channels. Now, if they are FTA (free-to-air) channels, you don’t have to pay anything extra. If they are pay channels, you pay for them separately. If you want more channels, pay for the channels and channel capacity. The objective is to empower customers by giving them the choice and power over what channels they wish to watch. We have mandated that the electronic programme guide (EPG) will have to provide the names of all the channels and their MRP. Whether you’ve subscribed or not, you’ll get to know about the channel.

Will you call the SC order a landmark judgement?

Why is some of the DPOs feel the tariff order is not easily implementable? Some guys have been saying that this is not implementable. I want to ask them the problem. They know which subscriber has subscribed to what channels. If a customer wants only five channels, they should be allowed to subscribe to just those. If they think that the consumer doesn’t know what she wants to watch, I think we are insulting her. Yes, some awareness is needed for which we are also working on consumer outreach programmes.

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