Prasar Bharati Strikes Back

As smartphones take over TV as the primary source of entertainment in India, the national broadcaster is planning a comeback

Photo: Getty Images

In India of the 1970s and 80s, Doordarshan was ubiquitous, and alone. Every evening, tens of people would gather at tea shacks and at homes in the country’s small towns and villages to watch televised renditions of centuries-old tales of Ramayan and Mahabharat. Weekend entertainment would mean communally viewing musical shows like Chitrahar and Rangoli. All on Doordarshan. Then came the 1990s. And with that liberalisation. As cable operators and direct-to-home (DTH) services mushroomed across the country, Doordarshan lost out. The advent of internet-enabled media further marginalised it. First, social media took over. And then online streaming.

But two years ago, Prasar Bharati—the state broadcaster that runs Doordarshan—had an idea. In a world where the television was being replaced by the smartphone, the broadcaster put together technology, with help from experts at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur, that would stream directly to phones, potentially sans the internet. And with this piece of tech, Prasar Bharati now wants to upset the video market.

“With the ever-expanding base of smartphones coupled with explosive growth in video consumption, there are increasing demands being placed on mobile network infrastructure. A direct-to-mobile (D2M) broadcast network creates a platform to disseminate video content, educational or data content, emergency alerts and radio content in a very cost-effective manner,” says Gaurav Dwivedi, chief executive of Prasar Bharati. The Union government is trying this technology out across 19 Indian cities.

The Videos Universe

India’s lucrative video market is currently held up by growing smartphone penetration on one hand and low-cost internet on the other. The number of mobile internet users in India was around 368 million at the end of 2016. In eight years, that number has grown to 879 million, a 138% increase. Around 86% of Indian internet users watch content on over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms, according to a joint study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and market research group Kantar. This is the market Prasar Bharati wants to tap.

“Unlike in the case of cable and satellite, where there is a mandatory requirement to carry Doordarshan channels, there is no such mandate on mobile phones from an OTT standpoint so far,” says Shashi Shekhar Vempati, a former chief executive of the state broadcaster. This is what explains Prasar Bharati’s eagerness to penetrate the smartphone user base. But the fledgling D2M industry also has other market segments on its radar.

Nearly 45% Indians, around 665 million people, did not use the internet till 2023, the IAMAI-Kantar study shows. The D2M technology can be used to target those people who do not have access to the internet because they have feature phones, an industry executive who did not wish to be named told Outlook Business. “They will be able to enjoy content similar to online users enjoying OTT services in addition to educational content or emergency alerts,” the executive adds.

Battle of Ecosystems

One thing the authorities must decide on before the eventual rollout of D2M is a broadcast model. For this, there are two options: the 5G Broadcast which uses the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards model and the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) 3.0 standards model. The two technological standards are distinct even though both can enable D2M services.

Put simply, the 3GPP model is based on existing cellular models making use of terrestrial internet. This model is backed by leading chipmakers such as Qualcomm and Samsung. On the other hand, the ATSC 3.0 standards model—popularly known as NextGenTV—can enable direct delivery of television content to mobile handsets without the internet. Adopting the ATSC 3.0 model would pit D2M directly against telcos that have benefitted from internet traffic generated by streaming content online.

The Telecommunication Engineering Centre (TEC) of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is studying both and has said in its latest technical report that the 5G Broadcast standards, as of now, are better prepared for D2M broadcast than ATSC 3.0. One major drawback of ATSC 3.0 is that mobile phones compatible with this standard, internet-enabled or otherwise, are not commercially available yet.

The Cellular Operators Association India (COAI), the industry body of Indian telcos, is sceptical of the use of spectrum by D2M service providers. “Building a dedicated D2M network by earmarking spectrum specifically for broadcasting infrastructure providing competing or complementary services would lead to breach of level playing field,” COAI has said in a statement. Telcos also say there is no need for decongestion as far as large video content traffic is concerned.

“Operators have deployed massive, widespread and world-class 4G and 5G networks throughout India, continually increasing India’s global rank regarding provisioning of mobile services. Such networks are perfectly able to cater to the ever-increasing telecom traffic with adequate resources and capacity planning. Thus, decongestion or offloading of mobile traffic via broadcasting may not be required,” says COAI director general S.P. Kochhar.

But this does not align with what telecoms say about the need for setting up revenue-sharing mechanisms with large traffic generators (LTGs) such as YouTube and Netflix. In this context, the industry body argues that LTGs use up a major chunk of available cellular infrastructure to cater to its large user base. Telcos say the additional revenue they will earn if LTGs start sharing can be used to beef up bandwidth.

National Argument

The D2M push addresses some unique vulnerabilities in the Indian broadcast space, says Vempati, the former Prasar Bharati CEO. He adds: “With television, we went from analog straight to DTH and cable, skipping digital terrestrial transmission. Now, let us say China takes down our satellite. That is a real possibility as we have seen in the Russia-Ukraine war. In that case, both the public broadcasters and the private channels will not get delivered because there is no alternative mechanism.”

D2M can cut down the dependence on satellite-based broadcast services and internet-based communication services. “Over the internet, you are predominantly dependent on platforms like YouTube and Facebook and so on which are beyond your control. Look at how YouTube shut down RT [the Russian public broadcaster] overnight,” adds Vempati.

In a similar vein, proponents of ATSC 3.0 say that implementing a 5G Broadcast service will only help foreign companies. Whereas a terrestrial broadcast system based on ATSC 3.0 presents an opportunity for Indian players to pioneer.

A DoT official who has been involved in the consultation processes surrounding D2M says, on condition of anonymity, “What D2M has to demonstrate is that it can compete with the content available on the internet.”

Finding a Market Fit

The two main challenges before Prasar Bharati regarding its D2M plans are hardware compatibility and financial feasibility. “The standard to use is open-ended at the moment. We, certainly however, do not support any standard or adoption of technology which can trap the device industry in another SEP overhang and increase the cost of the device,” says Pankaj Mohindroo, chairman of industry body India Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA) of which top phone makers Apple and Xiaomi are part.

SEP refers to ‘standard essential patents’ which are required to implement any technology standard. Chip makers and phone manufacturers say making ATSC 3.0-compatible handsets can raise device costs by $20–$40.

But it is worth the cost, believes the industry executive quoted above who refused to be named. “In the case of 4G and 5G adoption in India, royalty benefits went to foreign companies. We are the largest market and should not be a petri dish for everybody to come and experiment here and take the revenue,” says the executive.

On the other hand, while a mandate around D2M compatibility in mobile phones can help local industry in terms of demand, it can also harm its standing at the global level. “The inclusion of any technology which is not proven and globally acceptable goes against market forces and will derail the pace of domestic manufacturing and the most important exports for the exchequer,” the ICEA had said in a letter to the DoT.

Distribution Dynamic

For distribution, Prasar Bharati seems keen on modelling it around the existing DD Free Dish service. The free-to-air service does not charge a subscription fee and offers users over 150 channels. It is dependent on advertising revenue and earnings from auctions where private broadcasters bid for slots. It currently serves over 50 million households. While the service is financially successful, the success may be hard to replicate with D2M.

“D2M is not lucrative for private broadcasters because they are likely to face monetisation challenges. For instance, D2M fragments the existing ad market for free-to-air TV channels diminishing the value of TV advertising real estate,” says Varun Ramdas, manager at public policy firm Koan Advisory. The cost of D2M-specific content packaging is an additional concern for private channels.

In the past, Prasar Bharati has found ways to cash in on risks taken by private companies. For example, mandatory content sharing provisions allowed it to borrow expensive intellectual property like cricket rights. But in what is now Prasar Bharati’s most ambitious play, it will have to find its own market fit.