Bye bye to a common set-top box for Singapore

May 28th, 2012 | by Alfred Siew

It was meant to be the one set-top box you need at home, to tune in to TV channels on SingTel, StarHub, M1 and possibly any new pay-TV operator that would come to Singapore.

But instead of being the one box to rule them all, the Singapore government’s idea of a common, standardised set-top box has now come to nought, despite earlier plans to unveil it this year. The real reason: it was just impractical.

This set-top box project, dubbed Next-Generation Interactive Multimedia, Applications and Services (Nims), was started in 2009, according to The Straits Times.

And last May, when the government asked for proposals for the box, SingTel, StarHub and M1 came forward. But none of the bids were awarded because none of them were “likely to achieve the desired outcomes”, said the Infocomm Development Authority to The Straits Times today.

Did anyone tell them that a common set-top box won’t work? For sure. We did too, in a commentary piece on the issue in 2009, as did some pay-TV and telecom experts.

For starters, Singapore is too small a market to produce a cheap set-top box of its own. Unlike the more common StarHub- or SingTel-branded set-top boxes that are made by the likes of Cisco, this new Singapore box would probably have to be customised. That means expensive.

If the hardware ends up as an expensive upfront cost of providing a pay-TV service, guess who pays for it through expensive monthly subscriptions? Yes, consumers.

But back in 2009, the government was getting heavy flak for fostering the wrong type of competition in a distorted pay-TV market. SingTel had just won the bid for three years of Barclays Premier League coverage and many football fans suddenly found that they had to get a second mio TV box to catch the live action.

The government’s immediate answer? Let’s consider a common box, where couch potatoes can tune in to both StarHub and SingTel. The intentions were good, but the thinking, flawed.

Fortunately, since then, the Media Development Authority (MDA) had done a lot more to sort out the real reason why the market had become distorted – exclusive content.

With new “cross carriage” rules in place, certain types of “qualified content” will be carried by more than one pay-TV operator. The UEFA Euro 2012 next month is going to be the first time such exclusive content is shown on both StarHub and SingTel. For consumers, it means no longer any need for two set-top boxes.

It also means there is no longer a need to have this common set-top box that had been talked up. An expensive piece of equipment, it would have weighed down on all operators and their subscribers, considering pay-TV is a much lower-margin business than, say, broadband or mobile roaming services. And don’t even say that the government has to pay for it, because not all taxpayers watch that much TV.

There’s another reason why the common box, and indeed any set-top box, might be heading for the junk heap in the future – Internet TVs. Today, you can already watch snippets of BBC’s news reports streamed over the Internet straight to your TV. There’s also Facebook, YouTube and just about any content you enjoy on your tablet or smartphone, only on the big screen.

The technology is new but it is coming. In the United States, people have been logging on to video-on-demand services and watching movies at low, low prices of just a few bucks a month. What’s to stop these so-called over-the-top (OTT) services that bypass traditional pay-TV operators from reaching the homes of fibre broadband users here?

Nothing, except that content is controlled by owners still too happy to deliver their movies, drama series and documentaries through traditional pay-TV operators and their set-top boxes. But even these folks are having a rethink about using the Net for delivering their content.

Thus it’s a good thing that Singapore’s indulgence of a common set-top box is over. It’s really a fantasy piece of equipment that would not have done much to make the market more competitive and which would have shown a regulatory zeal that exceeded practical considerations.


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