About a year ago, I had to exit from Network18.
Almost a year before that, Ronnie Screwala sold his founder’s stake in UTV to Disney. Both of us had set up billion-dollar broadcast companies from scratch. We were among a handful of creative, hard-driving, first generation entrepreneurs, which also included people like Prannoy Roy and Rajat Sharma.
Before I make any assertions, I must disclaim that I have not spoken to any of them before writing this; so I have no way of knowing whether they would subscribe to my views.
Why were we forced to sell? Why have the others struggled? Of course there are several reasons which would be specific to each one of us. But there is one common thread which runs through all our tribulations, viz a set of regulations which handed brutal, ‘non-neutral’ power to cable companies.
India’s cable industry has been a beastly non-neutral and controlled-access industry, which simply slaughtered first generation entrepreneurs who did not have the family capital to absorb its violent indignities.
Just take a look at the bare facts.
I had to offer our channels to the cable companies under a ‘must provide’ clause, so my bargaining power was severely crushed (Strike 1 - one hand tied behind my back.)
The cable companies had no such ‘reciprocal must carry’ obligation, so it became utterly non-neutral (Strike 2 - now my second hand too was tied behind my back.)
Then, I was told that there was a price cap on my channels, ie, I could not freely price my service to the consumer (Strike 3 - my leg was buckled at the knee and tightly tied to my thigh.)
Finally, I was told that the cable company was free to extort any price it wanted to sell scarce bandwidth to me. With 300 channels clamouring for 90 fixed frequencies, and no fair price or free access regulation on the cable guy, he simply swindled me for absurd carriage fees — about 30 per cent of my news channels’ revenues! (Strike 4 - my second leg too was trussed, and my helpless torso became fair game for cable companies).
That’s how cable non-neutrality destroyed our broadcast operations.
Now I am launching a digital media outfit. The same predatory vultures are gathering overhead, demanding curbs on free access, trying to create scarcities which can be used to blackmail start-ups. I don’t want to die again.
And that’s why I punch for Net Neutrality.
First generation start-ups need a level playing field.
PS: For terrific clarity on this subject, read Vanita Kohli Khandekar’s excellent piece in Business Standard.