India eyes new broadcast body, more foreign investment

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NEW DELHI - The Indian government is planning to set up an independent broadcast regulator and loosen limits on foreign investment in broadcasting infrastructure services to promote the conversion to digital broadcast.

On Wednesday, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, minister of information and broadcasting, told India’s parliament in the capital that the government has been consulting stakeholders on a bill to make such moves.

The proposed bill provides for the establishment of the Broadcasting Services Regulatory Authority, a body comparable to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

In the absence of a broadcast regulator, TRAI has overseen some broadcasting issues such as digital distribution and channel pricing and has offered recommendations about issues such as foreign investment.

The proposed bill is the latest development in a long debate in industry and government over broadcast and content regulations (HR 10/17/07).

As the debate has dragged out, the I&B Ministry has taken such decisions as issuing temporary bans to channels who air inappropriate programming. Last year, Fashion TV and Sony Entertainment Television’s AXN channel were issued such bans (HR 3/29/07).

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, I&B secretary Asha Swarup said at an industry gathering in New Delhi that the government would allow foreign investment of up to 74% in broadcasting infrastructure services, a rise from the previous cap of 49%.

These services include such as the Headend-In-The-Sky (HITS) digital cable systems which combine cable stations into multiplex signals on just a few satellites and replace the more complex traditional cable head-end operations.

"Broadly speaking, our aim should be to phase out analog transmission by 2017," Swarup said at the Cable and Satellite Broadcasters Association of Asia India Satellite Forum.

HITS is seen as a possible boost for the cable industry here to convert to digital and compete with Direct To Home (DTH) services launched recently by players such as Tata Sky, the News Corp. joint venture with the Mumbai-based Tata industrial conglomerate.

Swarup added that a detailed policy announcement on foreign investment in broadcasting services, which also include DTH, teleports and satellite radio, would be made in mid-April, pending cabinet approval.

The lifting of the 49% cap on foreign investment would bring the broadcast services industry up to par with the telecom industry, which is what TRAI previously recommended to the government on the basis that digital convergence is attracting telecom players to broadcasting.

However, Swarup said that from a "national security perspective," the government has rejected TRAI’s recommendation of also allowing uplinking from foreign countries.

As for broadcasters, Swarup said no changes will be made in current foreign investment limits for news and current affairs which stand at 26%, while other channels are allowed 100% investment.

I&B minister Dasmunsi’s statement added that the bill proposed to Parliament “does not compromise the freedom of expression as guaranteed in the Indian constitution.
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