The 'Dark Fibre' Files: Interview with a Cable Operator

Posted by Sanchia de Souza at Apr 27, 2009 10:35 AM |
This is the second in a series of posts documenting the making of the film 'Dark Fibre' by Jamie King and Peter Mann, in Bangalore. In this post, Siddharth Chadha shares an interview he had with Thyagraj, a cable operator in Austin Town, to throw some light on the world of the cable operator, the subject of the film.

Seated in his small cabin office in Austin Town, you would never be able to tell that Thyagraj, the owner of Sri Devi Cable in Austin Town, Bangalore, cannot walk on his own. He was a national level fencing player before an unfortunate accident 18 years ago that immobilised him. But that has not deterred his spirit in running his cable network or canvassing for the local Lok Sabha candidate of the area.

Siddharth Chadha: When did you enter the Cable Television business? Was there trouble setting up shop?

Thyagaraj: I entered the Cable Television business way back in 1992. I purchased an existing network, here in Austin Town, which was showing six channels – Zee TV, Raj TV, Sun TV, a sports channel and Doordarshan. We had 168 connections back then and we used to charge Rs. 50 to Rs. 75 per connection. Most cable networks around that time were trying to poach each others connections but I was not greedy. I have never disturbed my neighboring operators and have only maintained as many connections as I can give good quality and service to.

SC: How did the business evolve over the years? How did you cope with the changing times?

T: The major change in the services occurred when the concept of Multi Service Operators came in about in 1997. Until then, I was providing 42 channels, including Pay Channels, to whom I would give money out of my own pocket. But after the entry of MSO's, we were forced to get connected to them as our costs of operation were rising. I first associated with BI TV, which was subsequently bought over by Hathway. Citi Cable and Hinduja were the other two MSO companies that came into the fray at the same time. This was also the time when the monthly subscriptions shot up to Rs. 150.

co-axial cable                           tv tuner device

SC: Does DTH threaten to take over your business?

T: Now that the Direct to Home services have come in, we are faced with a new challenge. But I personally have not lost any customers to these new DTH operators. They are very expensive and our quality standards are at par with any other service. We charge Rs. 200 per month for our services as compared to Tata Sky and BIG TV which cost at least Rs. 300. Also, I feel that if you give customers quality, they will stick by you.

tata sky                       BIG logo

SC: What are the main challenges to your business now?

T: The costs of running the business have risen considerably. When we started in the '90s, most operations were set up with a budget of under Rs. 5 Lakhs. Now, the cost of setting up a network runs into crores of rupees. The operations require setting up a dish, LNBs to receive signals, modulators and recievers, amplifiers to send output to residences using branch cables. The costs of maintenance, along with the salaries, are pretty high. This is what causes many operators to under-report customers. Otherwise, we would not be able to survive in the market.

SC: Do you participate in the local Karnataka State Cable Operators Association and its negotiations with TRAI?

T: I appreciate the regulations that TRAI has come up with. This prevents the MSO's from overcharging the customers and also keeps in mind our interests. However, I myself do not participate in the meetings called by Karnataka Cable Operators Association. I think that their organization is all about politics and greed. We should not be looking at increasing prices for the customers, just for our own benefit. There have been major interuptions in the past, such as in 2005 when the Tamil Channels were blocked out after the Cauvery dispute or when the TRAI and the Association could not come up with a mutually feasible tariff plan. Such blackouts hurt us as we don't earn any money during those days. There is no point trying to defy these associations as our office will then be ransacked. They follow the policy of not doing anything themselves, and not letting others do their work either. The need of the times is for people to do creative things--do new things differently.