House panel focuses on GST on cable operators, viewers’ financial burden

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The financial burden on viewers imposed by being forced to subscribe to bouquets of television channels and the burden of GST on local cable operators dominated the meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on Communications and information technology on Wednesday.

It is understood that the members raised the issue of companies forcing channel bouquets upon viewers which increases the cost for the end user. Users are forced to buy channel bouquets even though an average family watches fewer than six channels in a month, some members argued. At least one member asked TRAI why channels could not be unbundled and why the local cable operators (LCOs) should not be allowed to offer individual channels. It is understood that TRAI said that bundling is better because it reduces the costs for TV channels.

The ninety-minute meeting saw presentations made by the acting chairperson of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Meenakshi Gupta, and representations made by the All India Digital Cable Federation (AIDCF). AIDCF’s members include Hathway Cable, Den Networks, Asianet Satellite Communications, and Kerala Communicators Cable. Senior officials from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, including the secretary Apurva Chandra, also attended the meeting.

The multi-system operators (MSOs) that were present in the room, including Hathway, said that they are forced to pay GST on what the local cable operator (LCO) charges its customer. The problem arises because LCOs are usually small operators who do not fall within the GST ambit, and may have a different billing system and/or plan for different customers. Officials from MIB said any decision on GST has to be taken by the Ministry of Finance, HT has learnt.

According to data from TRAI, 915 private satellite TV channels are permitted by MIB and there are approximately 332 broadcasters in the country. According to a report published earlier this year, India’s media and entertainment sector saw advertising grow by 19% to 1 trillion, and subscriptions grew by 13%.

There was a short discussion about how right of way (RoW) rules should be harmonised since different ministries and their respective laws, and different states have their own sets of conflicting rules about laying cables and wires for telecom, television, internet and electricity among others.

The proposed Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, was briefly mentioned. There was consensus among the members and MIB that discussion of the Bill required a separate session altogether.

The chair of the committee, Shiv Sena’s Prataprao Jadhav, was absent on Wednesday. BJP’s Nishikant Dubey instead chaired the meeting for the first fifteen minutes. After he left, the meeting was chaired by BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Anil Agrawal.

“There might be occassions when the Chairman of a Parliamentary Committee might be unavailable. In such cases, the rules of Lok Sabha provide that members of the committee choose one amongst themselves as the Chairman to preside over that meeting. Usually, the seniormost member is then chosen to be the Chairman,” Chakshu Roy, head of legislative and civic engagement at PRS Legislative Research, said.

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