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November 26, 2016

The case of the DTH auction


November 26, 2016

There’s a certain pride to be taken in breaking unjust – or, even worse, silly – laws. I used to be the proud owner of an outlawed Direct To Home satellite dish.       

I refer to it in the past tense even though it’s still lying around somewhere because it is only of use as a particularly large paperweight now. The government crackdown on DTH dishes means there is no one willing to recharge it, even for a small fortune. Forget glorious high definition, I now have to get my weekly English Premier League fix by squinting at a dodgy online stream on a tiny laptop screen – which, by the way, is technically illegal too, although worldwide laws against piracy exist only to be observed in the breach.

Prohibition of any kind is at worst an inconvenience and people will always find ways to circumvent it. When the Sindh High Court cancelled the licences of wine shops it didn’t suddenly make us a nation of teetotallers. There might be scarcity, inconvenience and jacked prices for a while but we will always find a way to get what we want.

If one good thing has come from yet another pointless ban, it finally got the government to auction licences for DTH satellite services at home. The government has used this, as it did the 3G/4G auction before it, to boast about how much money we have raised. We can put that aside since the Rs15 billion it will get will likely be used to meet IMF deficit reduction targets. At best, it might put off the next round of hikes on petrol and gas prices for a bit.

Pakistan is the last country in the region to get DTH services. Afghanistan, a neighbour we enjoy sneering at for its endless state of war and general backwardness, beat us at both the 3G/4G and DTH game. Theirs was launched in 2014. The race against Bangladesh was a closer one; they got their first DTH service only in April. As for India, well, we’ve been using them as our bootleg DTH provider for years.

We should celebrate the auction both for the high-minded reason that the government has belatedly provided a service for which there is considerable demand and for the more base joy that comes from breaking the monopoly of cable providers. This entitled cartel has been going on ‘strike’ – which is a euphemism for a cable blackout – to protest the DTH auction. Their supposed complaint is that foreign investors were allowed to be part of the auction, which is a bit rich coming from cable providers when one of the biggest cable companies is under foreign ownership itself.

The real reason for the shutdown and howls of complaint is that the cable companies themselves were not allowed to bid for DTH licences and for that we should be thankful to the government for small mercies.

Cable providers have been more patriotic-than-thou enforcers of the establishment. Whenever a stray word was uttered on a talk show or a mildly negative news story run, they would swing into action. The order of channels would be changed so that the offending news station would not be available on its usual slot and instead be confined to the boondocks of cable wilderness where few television sets could access it. Sometimes the channel would be removed altogether. And good luck trying to get Pemra to take action against them.

All of these shenanigans will be harder to pull off on DTH. There will be the capacity to air a lot more channels so games with the order of channels cannot be played. And by keeping cable and DTH distributers separate, a healthy competition will be created where the two sides should keep trying to add services rather than ban them.

The complaints about foreign ownership sound absurd in these times of CPECs and privatisation. Of the three bidders who were given DTH licences, two were Pakistani and one was Chinese. If the cable companies now want to protest against Chinese involvement in the economy they are about one port city and $50 billion too late.

The auction is only the first step in the process and things are going to get dicier now with Pemra involved. The regulatory body gets to decide which channels will be shown so we can forget about getting any Indian channels, be it Star Plus for drama fanatics, Star Sports for sports die-hards or Arnab Goswami’s talk show for masochists. That significantly cuts down the number of channels we will receive. We will probably have to look to our friends in the Gulf, such as Qatar, where Al-Jazeera launched its beIN media group spinoff in 2014.

There is also the undeniable problem that Pemra can be unduly vindictive. When the Pakistan Broadcasters Association opposed the auction of licences, the regulatory authority went on the offensive and took out advertisements complaining about the PBA. Among the unrelated complaints Pemra had, it wondered why the the PBA opposes the dubbing of channels from English to local languages, a question that doesn’t need an answer for anyone who has watched Friends dubbed into Punjabi.

And it is true that Pemra went ahead with the auction without taking the PBA’s opinion into account, which is hardly the wisest thing to do when it could lead all the channels to refuse to allow their content to be broadcast on DTH. Having crystal-clear HD pictures isn’t worth much when there is nothing to watch.

Technology may have the last laugh though. We have been so late in getting DTH that it may become passé in the year it takes for the services to be launched. The next leap forward is ‘cord-cutting’, ie doing away with cable and satellite and relying on streaming. Right now, our internet speeds are mostly too plodding to facilitate that but competition from DTH should give internet service providers a jolt. Already, the introduction of fibre optic has made relatively smooth streaming possible. And it won’t just be technology that is laughing. The government may get a chuckle or two from raising Rs14 billion for a service that soon becomes obsolete.

Here there is another lesson to be learned from the 3G/4G auction. Originally we had meant to only auction licences for the 3G spectrum. By the time we got around to it, the fourth generation of wireless mobile technology had already become the norm in the rest of the world. We have been even more lethargic with DTH. The lesson for the government here should be that fear – be it of change or outsiders – only ensures you are left behind. And just one auction is not going to help us catch up.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]


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