Airtel Digital has bounced back into reckoning in fast growing high-definition DTH market by adding capacity from the newly launched SES-9 satellite and could emerge a strong challenger to Tata Sky in coming days.
The SES-9 satellite was launched last year and new transponders were made available to Airtel earlier this year.
Over the last several days, the DTH provider has added around 10 high-definition channels and more are expected to be added shortly.
Among the new HD channels added to Airtel are TLC, Times Now, Animal Planet, Zee Talkies, Zee Bangla and Zee Marathi.
With the latest additions, it has now tied with Tata Sky and Sun Direct as the platform that offers the highest number of HD English movie channels in India. All three now offer 10 Hollywood movie channels.
The expansion has also helped the company boost its non-movie English offerings by bringing onboard Animal Planet, TLC etc. In the his regard, the platform now offers as wide a selection in this regard as Sun Direct and Tata Sky.
BACK TO NO. 2
With the latest additions, the total number of HD channels on the platform has gone up from 55 to 65, and the company has re-emerged as the No. 2 operator in this segment beating Sun Direct and Dish TV.
It was, at one time, the No. 1 HD operator in the country with the highest number of such channels, but was forced to surrender its leadership due to paucity of spectrum.
Even with the newly added channels, it is still behind Tata Sky, which has 75 HD offerings. However, the gap is likely to close fast in coming days.
As far as the English language market is concerned, Airtel’s expansion has further opened up the gap between the top three — Sun Direct, Airtel and Tata Sky — and the others — Dish TV, Videocon D2h and Reliance Big TV.
Dish TV, which has as much capacity as the others, is now clearly behind the top three in terms of channel count in the English market.
In the English segment, Dish TV offers only seven movie channels and six entertainment channels in the HD segment and is ranked No. 4 — compared to ten movie channels and seven entertainment channels on Sun Direct, which is ranked No. 3.
DTH operators, like mobile operators, are dependent on availability of spectrum, and in this matter, no other operator has been as lucky as Tata Sky — which partly explains its HD leadership.
The operator was using a modest 12 transponders on INSAT-4A satellite which was launched in 2005 and supposed to reach end of life in 2017.
To replace the satellite when it dies, ISRO sent up GSAT-10, and gave 12 transponders on the same to Tata Sky.
However, INSAT 4A is still going strong, with the result that Tata Sky now has around 23 transponders at its location.
None of its competitors has anything comparable.
For example, Airtel Digital was operating with just 11 transponders on SES-7 satellite till last year.
Given that a single transponder can only transmit 12 to 14 high definition channels or about 40 standard definition channels, the company could not take on Tata Sky in terms of the sheer number of channels.
As a result, it was offering only around 55 HD channels despite being a pioneer in the segment.
However, it got some timely help from its satellite provider SES last year as it launched a new satellite — SES-9 — last year with lots of capacity.
Thanks to an extra three transponders (108 MHz) of capacity on the new satellite, Airtel is again able to add new HD channels.
At 3 MHz per channel, the extra 108 MHz is enough for the company to add 36 HD channels — taking the total to 90 such channels.
Similarly, Sun Direct too has seen a pick-up in the spectrum available to it, though it is not as dramatic as in case of Tata Sky or Airtel Digital.
The Chennai-based operator was working with just eight transponders, including three shared with Reliance Big TV, till last year.
This year, it was able to get three more transponders, which helped it add 42 new HD channels to its platform and take its total high-definition line-up to 55.
Another potential competitor is Dish TV, which is using 12 transponders on the NSS-6 satellite to transmit its standard definition channels.
Since it could not get enough capacity on the same channel for its HD offerings, it was forced to go to a nearby satellite Asiasat 5 to take on six (4 x 1.5) extra transponders,
This gave it enough capacity to launch 84 HD channels.
However, it has been rather slow in taking advantage of the extra capacity. As of last year, the company was offering only around 60 HD channels, and has recently increased it to 65. Most of the new additions are in non-English languages.
Dish TV has also leased 5 new transponders on India’s new GSAT-15 satellite, which was the same one that was used by Sun Direct for its HD services. However, this will be used for transmitting more standard definition channels.
Since Dish TV uses the older MPEG-2 technology for its standard definition service, it requires about twice as much spectrum as other operators.
As a result, it could carry only around 240 channels on its 12 transponders, while others would have been able to carry 350-400 channels. With the extra five transponders acquired on GSAT 15, it has now been able to increase its capacity to 340 standard definition channels — more or less matching what the others offer.
Moreover, Dish TV will get 15 transponders — or about 540 MHz — after its acquisition of Videocon D2h is completed. It is, however, not clear whether the company will try to divert this spectrum for Dish TV, as doing so will require about 10 mln dish antennas in India to be re-aligned.