More choice means more confusion. So many players, so many packages, and so many plans – how does one choose? It’s so overwhelming sometimes, that we wouldn’t mind hiring a consultant to spew out a solution suited for our needs. There are various factors one needs to consider when making a choice about DTH providers. First, there is the question of whether a cable set-top box is sufficient for you. Next, when you’ve decided to go in for DTH, there are various factors one needs to consider like picture quality, transmission during rough weather, how suitable are the package bouquets, pricing, and, of course, value added services.
Since the services are dependent on signal strength, geographical variances have to be considered. If a particular provider has excellent reception in one area it may not necessarily be the same elsewhere.
When it comes to choosing DTH providers, some go strictly by price – the cheapest being the default winner. But most people go by what their friends and relatives have to say. We asked the Tech Guru reader community what they felt about the various players out there. We conducted an online survey where we asked readers to rate their DTH service on each of the parameters mentioned. But before we get to them, let’s iron out some of the basics.
The DTH story
DTH can be defined simply as the transmission mode by which satellite TV programming can be received at home. It began in India, a few years ago, with Dish TV who was awarded the country’s first DTH license in 2003 and began operations in 2004. DTH is the primary alternative if you don’t want to depend on local cable operators, who, let’s face it, have a lot of problems when it comes to service delivery. Tier 2 and 3 towns frequently face Cable TV outages and breakdowns and service is not dependable. Since DTH signals come directly from the broadcast satellite to the consumer’s dish, it can reach remote places. With the widespread implementation of CAS (Conditional Access System) throughout the country, DTH is a good alternative. As of now, there are primarily six main players in this space with Videocon being the youngest entrant. Each player has more popularity in certain zones. For instance, Sun with its bouquet of south Indian channels is strong in the south. As of late 2008, Dish TV had about 59 per cent market share followed by TataSky. But within three months of its launch, Reliance BIG TV gained 15 per cent of the share.
In the current scenario, DTH players are offering a host of services to attract consumer attention. Here are some of the features you should consider before you decide which service provider you would opt for, from the ever growing list.
A DTH service is only as good as the picture quality you get. Some players offer MPEG4 picture quality, while others offer DVD quality digital transmission. A newer standard is the MPEG4 with DVB-S2 which stands for Digital Video Broadcasting - Second Generation. This standard was developed at about the same time as the H.264 video codec. The standard has provision for HD quality, but it has to be implemented. It also allows for enhanced interactive services with access to the internet. Only the outgoing data needs to be sent by other transmission methods. Currently, going by information on their web sites, only Airtel and Videocon offer MPEG4 with DVB-S2.
Each DTH provider has packages with channels bundled together. This seems unfair, since you should be able to pay for only those channels that you want. But it’s a small price to pay for digital quality and value added services.
The base pack of almost every provider contains free to- air channels and a few other channels thrown in. The first level of categorization in packages happen in two large geographies – South-specific packages and Rest of India packages. Some providers like TataSky schemes are structured in a way that you can add another add-on package to the base pack to make it more comprehensive. Others have fixed plans according to different prices of the packages. Dish TV, for example, has plans such as Silver, Gold and Platinum. In addition to these, providers allow you to add channels à la carte (order on an itemized basis). For instance there may be a movies à la carte add-on that will activate few foreign movie channels. Almost each DTH provider has special packs for the southern region that has packs specifically designed to include regional language channels. Another option is the all-encompassing package. In such a package, DTH providers will give you all channels available for a lump sum amount. These packs are given grandiose names such as Mega- Pack or Titanium Package. On an average, the monthly charges for such a mega pack comes to about Rs. 350. Depending on the provider they will even throw in a couple of free movies on demand and perhaps access to active services. The mega packs give the most value for money when it comes to a price per channel. However, if you don’t want to go in for jumbo schemes, you need to priorities which channels are most important. The simplest way to do this is to make a list of the channels you want, and go ahead with the service or package that gives you most of them for the least amount. While looking at a purchase decision, the number of channels offered is not as important as the relevance of those channels and whether you’re getting the desired combination in a pack. There are even interesting entry offers by the DTH providers which include the cost of installing and the hardware. In the entry offers, these providers bundle a particular package for free in the initial months. To make sure you’re getting your desired channels, it’s best to look through listings on the provider’s web site and brochures carefully.
Package Details for DTH Operators
( Click on Image to Enlarge )User Interface
The user interface is important. You’ll be using it to interact with your service. The Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) helps you navigate through all the programs you can watch. Some EPGs allow you to narrow down channels as per genre. BIG TV’s guide, for example, allows you to reorder channels alphabetically or as per numbers. Videocon offers the interface in multiple languages and allows you to customize the on-screen display to a certain extent. The more user-friendly the interface the better. The interface should let you access a lot of information in a comprehensive manner.
There are several things that go into this – brief write ups available about upcoming programmes, how far ahead does the guide show updates, does the guide show what is currently playing (preview), and so on.
Movies on Demand
With DTH comes the added advantage of playing movies on demand. There are specific channels where movies play at scheduled start times.
These schedules can be accessed through the service interface or some DTH operators even put it up on their web sites. It’s important to note here that the number of channels showing movies on demand is not as important as the kind of movies. Some players source latest content, while others show movies that are not as recent.
Many providers with the exception of Sun Direct offer interactive services. These services let you interact with the TV. For example, while watching a cooking show, there may be a pop up which says press the red button to see other such recipes.
Some DTH providers such as Dish source content from online sources like matrimonial or job services. Others like Airtel allow you to set up widgets that give information and news snippets, weather, stock updates, breaking news on the press of a button without moving away from the main screen.
Feature Snapshot of DTH Operators
( Click on Image to Enlarge )
We asked members of the Tech Guru community to rate their DTH service on a scale of 1 to 5 on a few parameters such as Picture Quality, Overall reception quality, Package composition and structuring, Pricing and Value Added services. They were even asked to comment on specifics that appeal to them as users and their thoughts while choosing a particular DTH provider. Big, Dish and Airtel received the highest number of votes for being chosen based on pricing.
We also got an idea of which services are more popular. As expected, TataSky was the most popular and formed the largest part of the respondents. It received a good rating on picture quality, but scored lowest on pricing and package structure. The highest average rating for picture quality went to BIG TV, followed closely by Airtel. Similarly, both BIG and Airtel received the highest user rating for package pricing. Since Videocon is the newest entrant in this space, it received very few votes to be considered in the comparison of specific parameters.
Market share and market composition as per our survey respondents
The survey also revealed some secondary findings as well. About 60 per cent of the respondents who took the survey were on DTH, while 20 percent were on regular cable. Cable set-top boxes were preferred by 17 per cent of the respondents. About 73 per cent of the respondents still own regular CRT TVs; while 15 per cent have HD ready and 11 per cent have full HD LCDs.
TataSky has been around for quite some time. Among other things, TataSky provides customers with 24x7 support in 11 languages. Their channel packages seem to be a tad on the more expensive side. However, they have the maximum number of interactive services – many of which very promising and are directed at kids. TataSky seems to be the most trusted of the lot. Rahul Choudhary from Haldwani Uttarkhand says, “It has good service and the Tata quality.” But since it’s the most popular it got a lot of criticism as well. A few complained the interface is slow. Rahul Mathur from Bhopal says, “Tata Sky, even after many software updates, seems to be very slow and hangs couple of times”. However on the positive side, we got comments like this one too. “Their customer service is good” Narendra from Meerut says “its customer support is also very responsive and supportive”.
With its Saif and Kareena campaigns, Airtel seems to be going places. The DTH provider has armed itself with a lot of innovative interactive services and some exclusive features such as a Universal remote. Saravana Pradeesh from Tirupur says he “chose Airtel for the universal remote and customer service”. On the interactive front, Airtel has some interesting innovations. With their iNet feature, customers can get updates on the latest news, stocks from your portfolio, Bollywood gossip and the latest weather with widgets. “We have partnered with NDTV for our News widget and CNBC for Stocks”, said Mr. Sugato Banerji, Chief Marketing Officer – DTH, Bharti Airtel. As for plans, the structure is decent. If say you’re a music buff, you could go in for a base pack of 110 channels for Rs. 127 and go in for a music top up for Rs. 25, which has a few channels and World Space radio thrown in.
Dish is the oldest DTH provider around. You can access content from Shaadi.com and search for potential partners through the ShaadiActive service. The content is not live but is updated every week. Similarly you can access content from monster.com and ICICI Bank.
As for packages, they’ve got three packages that cover an assortment of everything, while à la carte channels can be ordered as per preference. Respondent Anil Kumar, says “The packages are good”, however he adds, “I’ve had but poor reception during rainy days”.
BIG has been quite big on our user-based score charts. It scores high in picture quality, thanks to MPEG4. It also has good start-up plans, with three months subscription clubbed with the hardware cost. BIG is focusing heavily on pay-per-view movies, but we couldn’t find any interesting titles playing. “Big TV has its issues but it does provide me with many options. There are more channels, in more languages (and in the original languages), and the picture quality is definitely better. And it is reasonably priced”, says Kirtana Krishnan from Thane.
Sun has a strong presence in the South. It also has packs for other regions and languages. This way, you can opt for the Marathi pack (depending on your language) if you’re from Maharashtra.
Videocon combined its electronics and consumer goods background to bundle LCD TVs and DVD players with in built DTH receivers. They’ve even come up with DVD players that have in built DTH. It also has some interesting features on the interface. For example, a 12 picture in picture mosaic to browse channels rather than using the EPG. It also has tickers for stock, cricket and news updates that form an overlay over the programming being viewed. Their packages are decent but as per the web site information even their Diamond pack which is their highest end offering needs an English movie add on priced at Rs. 25 to make it complete. Like Sun Direct, Videocon d2h also has packs for every region.
Survey User Scores for DTH Operators