A common set-top box for S’pore: you sure it makes sense?

November 23rd, 2009 | by Alfred Siew


Often a tolerant lot, Singaporeans can accept a lot of things – slow broadband speeds, lack of full number portability (until last year) and even not being able to choose their government (in some wards).

But one thing they can’t stand, joked a journalist pal of mine, is to have their weekend football fix taken away. Should that happen, he declared, there’d be a “RIOOOOT!”

That perhaps explains why the Singapore media authorities did a stunning U-turn yesterday, saying that they might just  make SingTel share its fresh-in-the-bag Barclays Premier League rights with StarHub come next year.

Acting Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew, even went so far as to say the government was considering an universal pay-TV set-top box for Singapore homes, so that people don’t have to get two set-top boxes to watch BPL on SingTel and other popular channels that StarHub carries.

This, of course, comes after intense lobbying by StarHub, which just last month lost the exclusive BPL rights for the upcoming three seasons to SingTel.

Through ads in the newspapers, the “green” telco has been stoking up the fires among its unhappy subscribers, who suddenly realise they have to keep a StarHub set-top box to watch their favourite National Geographic documentaries yet sign up for a separate SingTel mio TV box to get their football fix.

But I don’t blame StarHub, or indeed SingTel, which is unfairly facing the unhappiness of football fans who see it as the party responsible for raising the bidding price for the exclusive content (SingTel has not raised prices for football channels, despite reportedly paying more for the rights).

The people I do want to question are the government media regulators: what on earth are you doing?

Weeks after the exclusive rights are bid for and awarded to SingTel, they are attempting a retro-active ruling on how things should be. This is like telling contestants to re-run a 100-metre race after the winner has been declared – because the umpires have changed their minds on the rules.

Don’t get me wrong. As a consumer, I’m for a single set-top box for watching everything on TV. I’m for content-sharing, like the pay-TV operators in Australia have agreed, to avoid pushing up exclusive content prices in future.

But what is happening now reeks of indecisiveness. For the authorities, which have done nothing against exclusive pay-TV content all these years since SingTel entered the market, to suddenly declare a change of rules is akin to flip-flop decision-making.

The MDA (Media Development Authority), an agency within MICA, has for years known the problem of pay-TV exclusivity.

In surveys it conducted and in plain public feedback, it was told about the unhealthy competition that existed in Singapore’s small market. It did nothing in the previous round of spiralling BPL bids in late 2006. Again, it did nothing in the last round in late September.

This despite knowing that telecom operators – SingTel and StarHub in Singapore – were using their profits in the “fatter” broadband and mobile markets to fund costly bids in the hardly-profitable pay-TV content market, so that they could sell a “triple play” bundle of service.

This,  in itself, already showed how distorted the market was, and was reason enough for the regulators to step in.

But no, the MDA insisted it would leave things to the free market, however distorted it was. It said it would let subscribers choose with their wallets, based on their ability to swallow the increasing costs of getting their football fix.

And so, after all the complaining and unhappiness from the public, SingTel went ahead and won the bid, and tried its best to grab some subscribers with a new, low-cost football deal for next year – the first time prices had not increased after a renewal of rights.

Yet, now, after all that is said and done, the authorities are doing a dramatic U-turn.

I am a StarHub Hubbing customer – my bills go up to $400 a month for broadband, mobile and TV – but I am feeling a deep sense of injustice for SingTel and indeed a worrying sense of uncertainty for any other telco here.

Why should the rules be changed only after StarHub loses its most important channels? Were the authorities listening when SingTel cajoled, complained and finally cursed as it entered the pay-TV market in 2007, having failed to get MDA to rule out exclusive channels in a newly-liberalised market?

Were they listening when market watchers told them how unrealistic it was to regulate an increasingly converged industry – broadband, mobile and pay-TV – with two regulators (MDA for pay-TV and the Infocomm Development Authority for broadband and mobile)?

If the authorities are to change their minds so easily, how should market players plan their investments in future? Would any foreign telco be confident in investing here in such a climate?

If SingTel had known that it would not have exclusive rights to the BPL channels – after StarHub had enjoyed them for years – would it have sunk in all that money to bid in the first place? How do their executives answer to shareholders now?

The truth is, if the regulators had listened to the market and to the customers all along, they would not find themselves in the current dilemma.

Now, what they can – and must – do if they are to go ahead with this content-sharing deal, is to apply the rule evenly. Don’t let StarHub keep all its exclusive programmes, which range from CBeebees to NatGeo. Let SingTel subscribers have the popular channels too.

And this universal set-top box: unless Singapore gets the Next-gen National Broadband Network (NGNBN) up fast enough to connect it to, forget about this fantasy piece of equipment.

StarHub uses a cable plant to send its TV signals to homes; SingTel uses a totally different ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) broadband network – you might just get two separate set-top boxes more cheaply than to specially make one for the Singapore market.


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