Communication satellites have revolutionised the global television broadcasting space over the past two decades through the provision of direct-to-home (DTH) services. Under the DTH mode of broadcasting, television signals are transmitted directly from the transponders installed on high-powered geostationary satellites to dish antennas installed on the user premises, bypassing local cable operators. Satellite broadcasting offers several advantages over terrestrial broadcasting such as superior audio and video quality, uninterrupted signal reception and the flexibility to customise channel packages. Satellite broadcasting has made it possible to provide high-quality TV services in remote areas, which are not serviced by terrestrial cable operators.

Over the years, satellite broadcasting has witnessed a significant change in its technological architecture. The initial sate­llite TV systems involved the transmission of analogue signals in the C-band (4–8 GHz). The low frequency of the band ne­ce­ssitated the installation of large dish an­tennas (6-8 feet) at homes, thereby making the DTH service more expensive and less popular. The modern satellite TV systems, on the other hand, transmit digital signals that allow users to view standard high-definition (HD) channels. Moreover, the signals in these systems are transmitted in the high-frequency Ku-band (12-14 GHz), and hence require smaller dish an­tennas of 2-4 feet that can be easily dep­loyed on rooftops. However, a key disadvantage of the Ku-band is that it is susceptible to outages during bad weather conditions.

The compression standards used for br­oad­casting DTH signals have also evolved over the years. Earlier, systems used the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) 2 standard of signal compression, which allowed each transponder to carry around 20 standard definition (SD) channels. Today, most DTH players use the MPEG 4 standard, which allows each tra­ns­­ponder to carry approximately 40 SD channels.

Satellite TV services in India

The government allowed the reception and distribution of satellite television signals in November 2000. In October 2003, Zee Entertainment-owned Dish TV launched the first DTH service in the country. This was followed by the launch of DD Free Dish, the first free DTH service in India by public broadcaster Prasar Bharati in Dec­em­ber 2004. Since then, the DTH market in the country has expanded significantly. Today, India is the largest DTH market in the world with a subscriber base of around 69.4 million. The market is currently serviced by five paid DTH service providers and one free DTH service provider, DD Free Dish. Dish TV is the market leader with an active subscriber share of 42 per cent, followed by Tata Sky (25 per cent), Airtel (21 per cent), Sun Direct (11 per cent) and Reliance (1 per cent).

The Department of Space has mandated all DTH operators in India to only use satellites commissioned by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The DTH operators can use the capacity leased by ISRO on foreign satellites if sufficient capacity is not available on ISRO satellites. The satellites currently being used by Indian DTH service providers are INSAT-4A, GSAT-10, ST-2, MEASAT-3, GSAT-15, NSS-6, Asiasat 5 and GSAT-17. Recently, India launched its heaviest and most ad­van­ced communication satellite, GSAT-11, from a European spaceport. This large high-throughput sa­tellite (HTS), along with two smaller HTS satellites GSAT-19 and GSAT-29 laun­ched earlier by ISRO, will help expand satellite-based TV services in the remote and rural areas of the country.

Rising demand for spectrum and transponder capacity

Despite the recent series of satellite launches, India is far from becoming self-sufficient in its satellite capacity. As in the case of telecommunication services, the adequate availability of spectrum and Ku band transponders is the key prerequisite for the proliferation of DTH services. Currently, a single DTH operator in India requires around 15-17 transponders, depending on the number of channels that are to be carried. Each transponder uses around 36 MHz of spectrum and can transmit around 40 SD channels and 14 HD channels.

At present, there are around 111 satellite transponders for DTH services in the country as against a total requirement of 175 transponders, according to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Of the 111 transponders, 42 are installed on Indian satellites while the remaining 69 are placed on foreign satellites. Moreover, when India fails to send a satellite to its allotted location within the given timeframe, the slot is reallocated to foreign companies from other countries by the International Telecommunications Union.

The demand for Ku-band spectrum has also increased significantly owing to the exponential increase in the number of TV channels and the upgradation of SD channels to HD ones. The country had 83 HD channels at the end of 2017 as against three in 2010. In the next few years, the demand for spectrum is expected to increase even more as DTH operators upgrade the HD channels to 4K technology. A 4K transmission requires almost four times as much spectrum as a full HD transmission.

Other issues and challenges

With the digitalisation of analogue cable networks in the country almost complete, DTH now no longer enjoys the benefit of being the only technology that offers superior picture and sound quality, and interactive services. Further, the high initial cost of installing a dish antenna and higher monthly fees have made it difficult for DTH operators to expand their subscriber base. As per the Telecom Regula­tory Authority of India, private DTH players experienced the slowest subscriber growth in five years during the half year ended June 2018.

Meanwhile, apart from digital cable TV service providers, DTH players are now competing with over-the-top (OTT) players. An increasingly large number of users are now viewing content on OTT platforms such as Netflix, Hotstar and Voot, and not on TV channels. The rising popularity of OTT platforms can be attributed to the ease and convenience offered in viewing content, increased penetration of smartphones, availability of high-speed internet services and declining data tariffs. A large number of OTT players are also offering content in local languages in order to cater to customers in rural and remote areas. In order to overcome the challenge posed by these OTT players, DTH operators have now planned to launch hybrid set top boxes, which will deliver both internet and satellite TV services. This will allow the customers to watch both private broadcasters’ channels as well as online video streaming services.

The Indian DTH space has also witnessed a series of disputes between DTH operators and channel owners in the past few years. Tussles between Sony and Tata Sky, and Star and Dish TV are a case in point. In a typical collaboration, DTH com­­panies agree to pay a certain amount of money to the channel owners for al­low­ing them to distribute the channels to their subscribers. The amount of money so ag­reed is usually a fraction of the office price of these channels that channel owners put up on their websites. The negotiation, how­­ever, fails in case the channels start demanding a higher-than-usual hike in the subs­cription charges paid by DTH providers.

The way forward

With changing industry dynamics, the focus of DTH players in India has shifted from customer acquisition to improving the average revenue per user. Going forward, with competition in the digital broadcasting space becoming fiercer, it has become imperative for DTH players to continue offering a range of value-added services to the customers at reasonable rates. Mean­while, a series of delays in satellite launches has impeded India’s efforts to be self-sufficient in terms of satellite capacity. This is likely to hamper the growth of the Indian DTH market. To this end, the government needs to add adequate capacity through Indian satellites and facilitate the migration of capacity on foreign to domestic satellites in the next few years satellites.