With the launch of multi-service operator (MSO), Bhutan NetCom, television service providers in the country has initiated their first move towards digitalization.
About 92 local cable operators (LCO) in the country came together to institute a MSO, all of whom has equal stake in the business.
“This business model, itself is commendable when the MSOs in the neighboring countries are killing the local operators,” said the Chief Executive Officer of Bhutan NetCom, Khampa. The other side of the business, he said is to keep pace with the global technological advancement.
MSO is an entity that subscribes to channels directly from the broadcasters such as Star, Zee and Sony and distribute to the LCOs. The benefits could be best explained by the dissimilarity and difference in number of TV channels across the country. “With the MSO, every dzongkhag in the country can subscribe to same number of channels, all in high definition, including sound,” he said.
This is a basically a switch from analogue to digital. While TV subscribers in Thimphu have all shifted to digital, sources said that LCOs have erected DTH (direct-to-home) and distributed the TV channels to its subscribers, using the identities of people from across the border.
In essence, this is illegal because DTH is not allowed in Bhutan and in addition, DTH is meant for home consumers and not for distribution by a LCO.
It is not that the LCOs have applied for MSOs or did not avail the rights from broadcaster in the past. They did but it was an expensive affair.
Khampa said that Zee, for instance alone has many channels and for each channel a box resembling the set top box has to be procured from the broadcaster. Then the MSO has to erect dish and align the position to receive the signal directly from satellite. The MSO will then distribute to the LCOs, who will in turn provide the service to individual homes.
“It’s like progressing from Old Stone Age to modern age in the TV systems,” said Tashi Dendup, the Chairman of the board of directors of Bhutan NetCom. “I’m also an LCO operating in Gedu where weather conditions disrupt the quality of TV signal. I hope the digital system will address these issues.”
Would that mean Bhutanese TV viewers could record, forward or rewind the TV programmes, similar to TV viewers in other countries?
No, because it entails more investment.
The set top box first used in Thimphu was the cheapest version and yet its affordability is questioned. The CEO of Bhutan NetCom said that the digitization is complete on part of the MSO. “But equal response has to come from subscribers,” he said adding that poor households in the country are grappling with issue of affordability.
To perform recording, forwarding and rewinding programmes on a television, he said the set top box has to be advanced and dynamic. Costly too. “When our subscribers are contemplating on the affordability, it is irrelevant to persuade them to buy advanced equipment,” he said.
Digitization of television and telecommunication is not only the priority but also a mandate, by virtue of being a member of International Telecommunication Union.
Until the public realises the need for digitization, Khampa said that the LCOs would grant a three-year transition period. “While the local cable operators will continue to advocate for digitilisation, the analogue system will be available till a time when the people demands it,” he said.
Currently, there are only 60 channels approved by the government including the local channels.
The digital television system will complement the government’s Digital Drukyul flagship program. Moreover, the CEO said that the government could use the MSO platform to broadcast public service announcements and messages during disasters, besides riding on the facilities to provide internet and public service delivery. This is because the signal rides on the fibre optic cable unlike the coaxial cable in the past. The fiber optics cable allows transfers of numerous signals and data from one end to other, which the coaxial cables are incapable of.
The government can also promote local contents by licensing private broadcasters so that the current bouquet of TV channels is balanced against foreign channels.
“I don’t know why past governments were hesitant to open up private broadcasting services in the country,” said Khampa. “The more we delay these platforms the more we will allow the foreign contents to sink in our minds.”
Bhutan NetCom was inaugurated coinciding with the birth anniversary of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo who gifted the access to television and internet in 1999 to the people. After 20 years, the television industry advances to digital world.