India Freezes Satellite Television Licensing Pending Survey of Capacity

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PARIS — Indian regulators on Jan. 19 announced that no further licenses would be granted to satellite television channels seeking to broadcast to or from India pending an assessment of whether the radio spectrum and satellite transponder capacity is sufficient to meet the continued surge in demand.

In its announcement, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said it had asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to determine how best to address the issue.

“It has been observed that although improved technologies have resulted in better utilization of the available spectrum and transponder capacities, the spectrum and transponder capacities for satellite TV channels are not unlimited,” the ministry said in a statement published on its Web site.

“A need is felt to revisit the present policy for uplinking and downlinking with respect to the approach towards grant of permission including eligibility criteria and the terms and conditions of the permission.

“Pending receipt of TRAI’s recommendations … it has been decided to suspend receiving applications for permissions to uplink TV channels from India and downlink TV channels in India under uplinking/downlinking guidelines with immediate effect, till further notice.”

Several industry officials whose companies are active in India said they were surprised by the ministry’s decision, which would appear to stop in its tracks one of the world’s fastest-growing satellite television markets.

One official said it is not clear whether the ruling affects only C-band satellite programming sent to cable head-ends and then on to consumers, which in the past have been the most affected by India’s uplink and downlink guidelines.

For Ku-band satellite links used for direct-to-home television, non-Indian satellite operators are obliged to go through the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which regulates prices and access to the Indian satellite market.

Because ISRO has not launched enough satellite capacity to keep up with domestic television demand, the agency has permitted non-Indian satellite operators to access the market, ostensibly on a temporary basis and on condition they use ISRO as their sales intermediary.

The industry official said Indian authorities may have become aware that programming they would like to keep out of India was about to enter the regulatory-approval process and could not be stopped without a government decree banning all new channels.

“It would appear that some channel they don’t want could not be barred on routine grounds,” this official said. “So the freeze was settled on as a camouflage way of dealing with the problem. Whatever the real reason, there are too many powerful interests in India behind development of new channels to permit a ban like this to last very long. My advice [to non-Indian] satellite operators is not to panic, as this certainly won’t be permanent. And in any event, there is a very real backlog of programs in the license pipeline — 100 or more applications depending on who you ask. So this backlog has to be worked through.”

The growth of India’s direct-to-home satellite television market in the past six years has been dramatic.

In a study published Jan. 18, the |Companiesandmarkets.com consultancy said subscriptions to pay-television programming had grown to 18 million and would continue to grow at an annual rate averaging 28 percent through 2012.

Paris-based Euroconsult arrived at a similar conclusion in a report published Jan. 14, saying Indian direct-to-home satellite television would be one of the principal drivers of global satellite-television growth through 2019.