Amitabh Kumar
Director,
Zee Network

Spot beam satellites await regulatory enablers to redefine broadcast markets

In December, 2019, when the US Congressional House Committees voted to reauthorize the STELAR (the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization) Bill, it was in fact an endorsement of the right of local populations to receive their local TV stations via satellite spot beams. While in the normal course, the local stations can be received using rooftop antennas, but as most of the populace subscribe to cable TV and DBS services, the providers of these services must carry local TV stations after obtaining the rights for carriage.

Due to the large number of local TV stations, which exist in any market, beams with nationwide coverage are not considered feasible or cost-effective to carry local stations – which must be carried by spot beams, beaming only to the desired cities. These spot beams, typically in Ka-Band, provide a very high bandwidth for all local channels to be delivered across a very small footprint with hundreds of HD channels at a fraction of cost for a nationwide coverage.

The need for local TV channels in local languages could not be higher than in India with over 24 languages and 29 states. Many of the DTH systems have swelled to over 1200 channels owing to the fact that the footprint of satellites permitted for use over India has always been of INSAT/GSAT satellites with full-India coverage. There is no way to restrict the coverage of a local channel to only the area of interest. This has also led to the Network Tariff Order (NTO) by the TRAI, mandating that subscribers should be able to select only those channels, which they wish to watch. Even then, induction of local channels on satellite TV has always been a challenge – and local cable TV systems are preferred for this reason.

The launch of spot beam satellites in India such as GSAT-19 and upcoming GSAT-20 now open new opportunities to target each city or market with hyperlocal channels. As the area of coverage is small, resources for the channel are not blocked for carrying a channel say for Karnataka or Orissa alone.

While the technology and the markets are in place, the need is for a suitable regulatory framework, which would allow the spot beam satellites to be used in the Ka or Ku bands with spot beams. Multiple uplinks for each channel will need to be allowed. These satellites could have multiple versions of the same channel, each designed for a particular state, city of region with local coverage, and local advertising.

The current uplink and downlink guidelines, for example, would require modification to permit a single TV channel, say Sports X, to have multiple regional and local versions with its own advertising, and some local content. The use of Ka-Bands would need to be permitted.

The use of spot beams for local and hyperlocal channels is something that has been in existence in Europe and Americas for over 10 years. Even over Asia, such satellites have been in use such as Intelsat 33ng, SES-12, and others. With ISRO now ushering India into the HTS satellite era with spot beam coverage, the industry now awaits to embrace a challenging dimension – to go hyperlocal. Nothing is better suited for this than the spot beam satellites. This is a new dimension, which can catapult the satellite TV to be a formidable competitor to the OTT. 

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