Tata Sky: Still living with SD in an HD world

By Vishal Mathur
Tata Sky: Still living with SD in an HD world

Having become used to high definition (HD) content on our TV channels, the standard definition (SD) channels have definitely been relegated to the position of just numbers on our set-top boxes. We do not really care about them, and watching them for five minutes makes our eyes tear up! Watching TV isn’t the same anymore, particularly when you have the likes of Star Movies HD for movies and ESPN HD and Star Cricket HD for sports in your channel bouquet.

So much so that I recently upgraded to the HD DVR, known as Tata Sky HD . Once you experience the ability to control what previously was uncontrollable, it just isn’t the same without that experience anymore. I can pause Live TV (who would have thought of that even half a dozen years back!), record shows, series link programs to record automatically and even rewind something that I may want to watch again, all in real time.

The main reason why I have used Tata Sky, right from Day 1 of its services launching in India way back in August 2006, if memory serves me well, is the premium packaging. The website, for starters, looks classy and is updated regularly. The customer care is possibly the best among all DTH services. Any updating to your channel package is done instantly. The hardware doesn’t have the typical shoddy plasticky build (which we lovingly refer to as Chinese), the on-screen UI looks sophisticated, and never in all these years have I had an issue with the recharge going wrong, or someone not responding to any complaint / query. I started with a multi-TV SD connection (that was all that was available then!), and upgraded to HD as soon as that launched. And now, one TV has the goodness of the DVR, with the other one lined up as well, but for only one reason. It all seems to be standing on solid foundations.

Now going back to the basics – what you see on that expensive HDTV at home. You are pretty much at the mercy of the DTH operators about what channels you can select from, on their platform. This is where things went pretty pear-shaped for Tata Sky. While most other DTH operators are using two satellites simultaneously, or using a foreign satellite if just one, Tata Sky remained stuck to Insat 4A at 83 degrees. In the meantime, the likes of Airtel added SES7 to their options, while Dishtv used Asiasat 5 and NSS6 simultaneously. The result – lesser number of channels than what the rivals offer. More importantly, it meant watching the current India – Sri Lanka series on Ten Cricket in standard definition, something that a cricket crazy country certainly doesn’t appreciate. Good time then, to talk about what went wrong.

And this neatly brings me to the aspect of planning. I have seen Tata Sky evolve ever since Day 1, when they started services with 60 odd channels, and the popular Zee Group vs. Star Group tiff at its height – both not providing their channels to the other’s DTH services! Soon, that was resolved. However, when the likes of Airtel Digital TV and Sun Direct arrived on the scene with a lot of noise about using MPEG 4 AV compression standard, Tata Sky and DishTV were the first to jump to the defense of the compression standard they had deployed – MPEG 2. The arguments being brandished around from both sides were about picture quality. Trust me when I say this – picture quality on both standards is the same, and any difference is almost unnoticeable. However, Tata Sky probably didn’t understand the bigger picture at that time, or didn’t bother. The biggest disadvantage of MPEG 2 – each channel takes up almost double the space of one on MPEG 4, if the bit-rate used for compression remains the same. Along the way, complete denial about the advantages of MPEG 4, probably because Tata Sky had already sold millions of set-top boxes (they were MPEG 2 capable, and not MPEG 4, as the newer ones are), and didn’t want to replace them all. Maybe, their thinking was correct, but it was clearly a risk that didn’t pay off.

But what spoiled it for Tata Sky have been the multiple delays from ISRO’s side. Yes, a couple of satellites between 2010 and now have failed, and the next one with 12 KU band transponders – GSAT 10 – is due for lift off sometime in September. If all goes well, this could be handed over for channel addition sometime around November – December 2012. But two years in waiting have put Tata Sky at a huge disadvantage. They have one of the lowest channel counts, both for SD channels as well as HD channels.

However, there are a couple of critical points that were completely not acted upon. First, why was there no shift to a foreign satellite? After all, the likes of DishTV, Airtel Digital TV and Videocon D2H are using them, which clearly means there are no legal limitations against doing so. Surely, Tata Sky could have gone down the same route, and saved itself the blushes. Second, had they bit the bullet and replaced the MPEG 2 boxes with MPEG 4 ones, and shifted over to that standard, they probably could have utilized the existing space for probably 60%-70% more channels.

As reports on certain forums indicate, Tata Sky had made an attempt to make some space for Ten HD, specifically for the India – SL cricket series. The multiple maintenance activities over the last few weeks indicated an earnest attempt. But for the consumer who paid extra to buy the HD or the HD boxes, the situation is unacceptable.

Looking forward, what has probably has saved Tata Sky is that ESPNSTAR now has the broadcast rights for matches to be played in India. Had it still been with Neo, the situation, at least this year would have remained as it is for the on-going series. Certainly, subscribers now seem to be hooking on to the idea of either shifting DTH operators (buying a new STB doesn’t seem incogitable anymore), or having more than one at home, with one on a lower priced package. Here it is to hoping that all cables are properly hooked on the GSAT 10!

Vishal Mathur


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