Noida-based Dish TV no longer looks like Dish TV.

Dish TV was India’s first-ever private direct-to-home (DTH) operator, launching in 2003—almost seven years after the first DTH proposal was floated (and turned down). The idea then was simple: offer better quality, better pricing and better television services to subscribers via satellite, bypassing local cable operators altogether. And the company did it well—it had more than 23 million subscribers, Rs 1,594 crore ($226 million) in revenue and Rs 19.7 crore ($2.7 million) in profit in the quarter ended September 2018.

Changing World

But things are changing. It’s now about more than just satellite for Dish TV. Here is the company’s plan for the next three months: a new video streaming service with some live TV channels, catch-up television, and original programming; a smart stick that converts your regular set-top-box into a smart one so you can access online content in addition to the satellite TV; an Android set-top box that allows you to switch between online and offline content without the aforementioned device; and a mechanism to offer broadband along with the satellite and online content access. In short, a whole lot.

Almost all leading DTH companies are going down a similar route. What has been a global technological phenomenon for at least the last five years, is finally here in India—convergence, increasingly blurring the lines between telecommunications and media. And DTH providers want to be at the forefront of this to remain relevant.

It makes sense for DTH companies; the pressure has been high with urban consumers increasingly switching to video streaming platforms. Capex is high, average revenues per user (ARPUs) flat, and balance sheets debt-laden. So much so, that the last 24 months have seen the merger of two big players—Dish TV and Videocon d2h—to form the largest DTH company in India, a partial stake stale by Airtel Digital TV, and Reliance Communications offloading its DTH arm. “DTH will have to up their game. The companies can’t wait for other technologies to come and conquer while they turn archaic. It is a survival game,” says a Mumbai-based media executive, asking not to be named.

It may not be easy, though. With Reliance Jio entering the TV channel distribution space with its high-speed wired broadband proposition Jio Gigafiber, competition is heating up. Earlier in October, Reliance Industries acquired a majority stake in two cable broadband companies—Den Networks and Hathway—to kickstart the Gigafiber story. Going by Jio’s history in telecom, the current pricing propositions will be overhauled.

In a soup

DTH has been plagued with problems for as long as it has survived, the biggest one being regulatory challenges. Sample this: the DTH licensing guidelines that came into existence in 2001 had no provision for the renewal of licenses. They still don’t. Since the ten-year licences started expiring in 2013, all five of India’s private DTH companies have been running on interim licences.

Time and again, the industry has made recommendations to the government to revise the guidelines as well as lower the licence fee DTH companies have to pay. The latest effort is a letter by Jawahar Goel, chairman and managing director of Dish TV India, to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai). Goel requested the regulator to rationalise the taxes and costs.

According to the current DTH licensing guidelines, the companies have to pay an annual fee equivalent to 10% of gross revenue (as reflected in their audited accounts). “DTH uses the same resources which are used by HITS (headend-in-the-sky) operators or broadcasters, that is, satellite capacity, however, in exclusion to other similarly placed platforms, only DTH operators are charged a licence fee,” read Goel’s letter.

In a set of recommendations submitted by Trai in 2014 on the issues regarding DTH, even the regulator had proposed, among other things, cutting the annual fee to 8% of adjusted gross revenue (AGR) because gross revenue also includes the service tax and entertainment tax paid to the government. However, these demands have been ignored so far.

While the information and broadcasting ministry is taking this into consideration and planning to come up with a new policy in a few months, it seems like the government will not budge on key recommendations, say multiple industry executives in the know.