India's Digital Broadcast Boom


March 28, 2011

By Jason Deign

The week of Sept. 15, 1959, was a good one for TV viewers. Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States as the Russian Lunik 2 landed on the moon. But one TV breakthrough passed with little fanfare: New Dehli-based All India Radio transmitted the first telecast to the Indian people, marking the start of what today is arguably one of the most important media markets in the world.

Fast-forward 50 years. Those All India Radio broadcasts, beamed bi-weekly from a makeshift studio via a tiny transmitter, have morphed into Doordarshan, India's state broadcaster and one of the largest broadcasting bodies on the planet in terms of studios and transmitters.

And at the same time, a plethora of new digital TV technologies such as direct-to-home (DTH) satellite broadcasting or cable network-delivered Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) are starting to transform India's broadcast and entertainment sectors.

New technologies

Historically, the massive Indian broadcast market has been dominated by analog signals.

Museum of Broadcast Communications figures indicate the terrestrial broadcaster Doordarshan has a potential reach of 90 percent of India's population, which currently stands at around 1.2 billion.

Add to this a substantial analog cable market, comprising some 12,000 last-mile operators or "cable wallahs," which is ripe for consolidation. In the last decade, though, more and more Indian viewers have been getting their TV news and entertainment through digital media.

"All of the numbers are going in favor of our sector."

— Simon Twiston Davies, Chief Executive Officer, Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia

The oldest and most widespread of these is satellite TV, which accounts for most of the 30 million DTH subscriptions in the country. Satellite can reach places other technologies cannot, but is limited in terms of its ability to provide interactive services.

Digital cable and IPTV

And that is where the real opportunity lies for media companies. Ground-based networks are starting to bring digital cable services and IPTV to the masses, albeit with plenty of room for expansion.

Digital cable has less than 10 percent penetration and there are less than 200,000 IPTV subscribers, leaving an immense field wide open to new operators.

"The first thing to note with regards to India is that all of the numbers are going in favor of our sector," states Simon Twiston Davies, Chief Executive Officer of the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA).

"Gross domestic product continues to grow, the penetration of electronic media is only at its earliest stage, and we have got a market which is just beginning to get to grips with the opportunities of digital cable," he adds.

Foreign broadcasters

"This is a market of more than a billion people with GDP growth of somewhere around eight percent ahead of them," says Twiston Davies. "And there is an immensely strong appetite for broadcast media in India."

The size and cultural diversity of the country means there are plenty of niches for broadcasters to exploit.

Each state is considering having its own DTH platform and programming, pitched at anything from sophisticated urban communities to rural populations, can be in any of 20-plus languages.

Currently, though, one of the things that makes India interesting for foreign broadcasters is that since the language of the upper and middle classes is English, they can easily adapt content from the United States, United Kingdom, or Australasia for the Indian market.

Interactive features

It is telling that an inflection point in the history of Indian TV was the arrival of the newscaster CNN 20 years ago.

The market now also comprises multinationals such as Disney, Sony, and Time Warner, but in the last 10 years foreign content has been challenged by a burgeoning homegrown production industry whose quality "is now quite outstanding," Twiston Davies says.

Bollywood movies are probably the best-known form of local output but Indian production houses also excel at news content, entertainment (remember Slumdog Millionaire?), and sports, where innovations include multi-camera and three-dimensional cricket coverage.

Digital broadcasters will be well placed to exploit such innovation. Recent figures suggest cable operators could invest up to USD$5 million in infrastructure that will allow viewers to use more responsive set-top boxes and get a whole host of new interactive features.

Mobile TV

And then there is the potential of mobile TV. "Wireless broadband must be a big part of the future," says Twiston Davies. "We have nearly 800 million connections to mobile in India.

I am not going to suggest that everyone is going to convert to wireless viewing, but if they can sort out the 3G and 4G licenses then the opportunity is staggering."

Twiston Davies also says it's reasonable to expect a five-year horizon for the deployment of mobile broadband networks.  "Of the 16 countries that CASBAA covers, from Japan to Pakistan and from China to Australia, India is by far the most dynamic in terms of growth," he says.

Jason Deign is a freelance writer located in Barcelona, Spain.

The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and do not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

Share this article: