TRAI approved interoperable digital STBs could be coming soon; offering choice to consumers

An interoperable set top box dreamed up by Trai is like a Unicorn. It is something that many would dream off, but few would choose to take up (and there are reasons for this).

While the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) did make every smartphone subscriber's life a little bit easier by enabling national mobile number portability last year. This year's agenda focuses on woes of both broadcasters, DTH operators and their customers as well. As per a recent report by the Press Trust of India, talks have progressed with Trai and leading broadcasters seeking solutions with the issue of interoperability of Set Top Boxes (STBs) among other topics. While that sounds like good news for subscribers, is it really something that they should look out for right now?

Problems with current STBs

Today, consumers who wished to change their operators due to dissatisfaction with the service or the lack of a particular channel or show, will often have to take a call change their DTH operator to avail the right service that fits their bill. But changing DTH operators often means changing every single bit of their TV viewing experience (apart from the subscriber and his TV of course) which makes it an expensive decision. The lack of an interoperable STB means that the consumer will now have also pay for the new STB that complies to the standards of the new DTH operator to subscribe another channel. Trai along with broadcasters and operators plans to resolve this issue by coming up with an interoperable set top box.

This conclusion however did not come without arguments and heated debates between cable operators, broadcasters and subscribers. When the initial consultation paper was released back in 2015, broadcaster associations and operators were quick to conclude that it is an impossible task and an illogical (read laughable) idea.

Airtel DTH CI slot

A built-in CI slot for the CAM along with a viewing card inserted into the built in CAM below it.

The reasons for this are fairly simple. Current day STBs (no matter which operator) come with a special CI slot (the same one that is also available on some TVs). The Common Interface (CI) slot simply allows users to subscribe to additional stuff by slotting in a Conditional Access Module (CAM) which has a slot ("slotception" here) to insert what is called the viewing card that lets you access a particular channel and the show running on it depending on your subscription on the viewing card. Those using a set top box from a local cable operator will also notice a similar built-in CAM slot on the set top box, which if often left unused.

A CI slot for a viewing card at back of an STB.

A CI slot for a viewing card at back of an STB.

While this should technically allow any subscriber to view a particular show or channel that is not a part of their standard subscription from their current operator, there are a couple of teething problems. The problem with using a CAM and a viewing card comes with two additional problems, keeping in mind current day concerns of better or higher quality video being beamed through networks.

CAM Card

A CAM card

The first is to do with the fact that CAM modules are pricey and that they don't come cheap. In fact many at times they cost as much as cheaper set top boxes themselves, which kind of kills the purpose of their existence in the India scenario.

The second issue is to do with the current video standards that keep improving from time to time. For example, if TataSky ships you better quality programming than your current DTH operator or local cable subscriber, it will have clashes with your older set top box no matter how new the CAM is. Then there are encryption problems to be dealt with as well as there is no one single CAM that will be able to encrypt all networks successfully. This means that you will either end up with no transmission or a low quality viewing experience, in short, you will not be a happy customer. Switching CAM modules will only make sense if everyone sticks to one standard, which is not the case out here in India.

Thirdly, the viewing experience using CAM cards are usually terrible (more ancient) and nowhere close to the stuff that you are used to on your HD set top boxes.

What is an interoperable STB?

An interoperable set top box is something like a Unicorn. It is something that many would dream off, but few would choose to take up (and there are reasons for this). As per the recent PTI report TRAI and broadcasters are nearing a solution to have an interoperable STB. The statement from the interaction with Trai chairman R S Sharma reads, "I think we are nearing a solution to having an interoperable STB. That is one of the items on the agenda this year,". The words to note here are "I think" and "this year".

This is because there is more work to be done in this space than you (a subscriber), me (a writer) and Trai (the regulator in question) can imagine. We are pretty sure that broadcasters have clearer picture of what it would take to achieve this.

Interoperability also translates to standardisation, that means there will need to be standards for content quality. Which also means tonnes of testing with broadcast standards, TV equipment (HD, Full HD, 4K etc), DTH equipment and more. If done right, it is something that would make the prime minister proud and even brag about. It is not something that cannot be pulled off, and countries like the UK do have it implemented to an extent.

Right now it isn't clear what's brewing in the meetings, but the shortcut (cuts down the process by a few years) to this interoperability "problem" is to either build one single set top box reference design and manufacture it locally or to go with one single format that would scale accordingly when one everyone decides on one single CAM unit. The first shortcut would either revolutionise the way subscribers in India view television or take us back to the stone age, depending on how it is implemented. The second, should result in some seriously low video quality standards as it often means creating content that first meets the needs of the least powerful set top box (like in game development).

But we have taken the first step and keeping Trai's previous accomplishments in mind, we could have something special here indeed. But it is a long time coming and you can stick to your favourite DTH operator for now as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has set 31 December 2017 as the deadline for digital switchover. It took four years to make mobile number portability a thing in India. Let's first switch to digital television and then to interoperable standards. But hey, there's really no harm in planning!

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