March 06, 2007

A Conspiracy Called Tata Sky

India's latest entrant in direct-to-home TV has utter disregard for your rights and uses discrete means to take control over them (Last updated on Jun-06, 2008)

Last Friday I bought a Tata Sky set-top box. Today, I returned it to get a complete refund. This is my story of why I did that and what I learned in the process. This isn't a rant, hopefully a bit of education for current and future Tata Sky owners and perhaps even a precursor to change.

I chose Tata Sky over Dish TV because the reviews indicated they have a superior user experience. This seems to be true, as far as interacting with the TV is concerned. Their menus are intuitive and it was easy to grasp all their features. This is true about their website as well, which although ridden with flash, is easier to use compared to Dish.

So why did I still chose to go for a refund? Because of the fundamentally unfair and cleverly restrictive ways in which everything in the service is designed. Tata Sky is great for anyone who only cares about watching TV. But if you refuse to be treated as an idiot who cannot see right from worng and refuse to have your rights trampled, Tata Sky is not for you.

I have three main issues with their service. But first, here's a bit of an introduction, how Tata Sky DTH works:

Issue #1 Hardware Ownership: what am I paying for?

  • You don't own the dish, Tata Sky does
That's correct. They will never advertise this, nor will the dealer tell you about it when you make the purchase. The dish belongs to Tata Sky, if you deactivate they take back the dish and the digicard.
  • You do own the Set-Top-Box (STB) but it's worthless without the dish
The purhcase you make is only for the set-top box. You will get a receipt for the set-top box and the renewal card. The Tata Sky engineer will bring the dish with him at the time of the installation. The dish transmits the signal from the satellite to the set-top box, also called satellite receiver, or in Tata Sky's case - the digicomp. In UK, it's called the digibox. The set-top box by itself is of no use without the dish.
  • In fact, if you deactivate tomorrow, they may take away both the dish AND the set-top box
This was the most shocking bit of information in the contract that Tata Sky wanted me to sign at the time of installation. Clause 11.3 of the contract explicitly states that Tata Sky can remove all the "hardware" from my place at the time of deactivation of service.  It doesn't define what hardware is or makes any distinction between dish and digicomp.

If you are a Tata Sky customer and you wish to stop the service tomorrow, by signing that contract, you have permitted them to take away the set-top box for which you paid in full. Don't believe me? Call up customer support and ask them to read out clause #11.3.

Issue #2 User Privacy: what about my rights?

  • They store all your usage information - how you watch your TV, what you watch, for how long and when
The contract states that Tata Sky may store every aspect of how you use their service. This allows them to create your detailed profile which will include your TV watching habits, how you order their premium services and so on. They already have all your contact information. Can you see where it's going?
  • They can profit from that information by selling it to third parties (read advertisers)
That's correct. By signing the contract you have agreed to let them use that information in any way they choose including making good money from it by selling it to "third parties". You, of course, get no share in this revenue stream. You get something else.
  • Be prepared to receive lots of very targeted ads (read spam)
This is the obvious implication of giving up your rights. Tata Sky knows which shows you've set as your favorites, they know what kind of movies you like, the channels you watch or don't watch, how many times you've ordered movies in the last three months. With this wealth of information, advertisers can draw up a pretty good picture of you so don't be surprised to get mailers online or offline that seem to be designed just for you.

Issue #3 Restrictive trade practices: locked away till eternity

  • You shall remain locked to receive Tata Sky forever, no Dish TV or another DTH service for you
If you buy a cell phone you expect it to work with any SIM card. Except when you get the phone for a discount, in which case, you can only use it with one particular SIM. You'd think that the same would be true for DTH, but no. With Tata Sky or Dish TV for that matter, even after paying for the equipment in full, you are not allowed to access the other's services. As a Tata Sky customer you are forever locked to receive only their services. This is clearly a restrictive trade practice.

TRAI, the regulatory authority that monitors DTH in India, is apparently working on the interoperability issue. But so far the players can behave the way they wish until the rules come into being. However, even if they allow inter-connection, it will be of little use with Tata Sky as you will lose the dish if you deactivate and perhaps even the set-top box.
  • You shall remain devoid of even Free-To-Air channels if you don't renew subscription on time
Free-to-Air channels are supposed to be, well, Free-to-Air. Not so with Tata Sky. If you don't renew the subscription on the due date, by 12 midnight, all your channels will be inaccessible including FTA.
  • You shall remain locked to the direction in which the dish is positioned
I called up customer support to ask whether one can somehow receive FTA channels broadcasted by other countries. Turns out, I'm not allowed to move the dish and in fact, it is not movable in the first place since it needs to be pointed at a very specific angle and has no tolerence for error.
  • You shall remain locked to the settings of the set-top-box
The user interface of Tata Sky does not permit one to setup alternative settings. There are no explicit options to change settings although a hidden menu springs up if you press the right combination of buttons. (see below for more)
  • You shall remain locked to the amount you carry in renewal voucher
Even the prepaid renewal voucher of Tata Sky is designed to get the most out of you. It only comes in the denomination of Rs 550 - which is more than what you need for a month's subscription (Rs 300) but not enough for two month (Rs 600). So at any given time you have Rs 250 always locked up in the voucher whether you want it or not. Perfect for Tata Sky because they want you to pay for their premium services. Not for someone who has no intention of paying for those services.

Not coincidentally, the renewal voucher is the only way to make payment with Tata Sky while Dish TV allows you to pay using several modes of payment.

To sum up all the above, buying Tata Sky digicomp and services was like buying a car which I cannot run on any fuel except the one supplied by the car maker. I must keep buying the fuel from them because if I stop, they can take away my car for which I paid in full!

In US or UK, there's no contract when you sign up for a satellite TV service. The contract only comes in when you get the equipment for free. It's only in India that we are made to sign on these ridiculous terms. What surprised me most in this episode is the utter ignorance about the terms of the contract within Tata Sky itself. The engineer who came for installation said my signature is needed as an authorisation for installation. His team leader I spoke with had no information about the terms. Two senior people in the organisation that the dealer made me speak to prior to refund, also proffered ignorance about these terms and had no convincing answer.

Other things you perhaps didn't know about Tata Sky
  • The reception is extremely poor or unavailable during rains. This however, is true about every satellite TV service in the world. Tata Sky makes no mention of it on their website.
  • Their toll-free number only works with MTNL / BSNL lines. If you're an Airtel subscriber, you'll have to call an STD number to get customer support. Knowing how long these calls take, the support will end up costing you quite a bit. (You can't go out and call from another phone because you might need to sit next to the TV if they tell you to change some settings)
  • In North Delhi, there have been reports that NDPL, also a Tata company, is using force to remove cable connections from NDPL electricity poles causing disruption in the cable infrastructure and forcing cable TV subscribers in 800,000 homes to upgrade to Tata Sky.
  • The set-top box that Tata Sky provides has a hidden port to accept PC card but it's been rendered useless since there's no software interface to use it. It's hidden behind a small plate held by two screws at the back.
  • They charge you Rs. 1000 when you change a house.
  • They will never tell you this but you can watch TV in more than one room with a single set-top box though you'll only be able to watch the same channel on all TVs.
  • There is a hidden settings menu in their interface for the technically inclined. Go to Organiser > System Settings > press 0, 1 and <select> button in quick succession. You'll get to DNB settings and other options.
  • The Tata Sky set-top box is from Thomson, their remote identical to those you get with SkyTV in UK and the software is from Open TV, the firm that sells software to Sky TV (apparently, it's from NDS). Apparently, no one has been able to hack Sky TV (at least not publicly) to use the service without paying subscription fees.

What can you do to protest?
  • Do not purchase their service. If you must, then refuse to sign the contract and demand they respect your rights.
  • Flood their customer care centre asking them questions about the three issues: ownership, privacy and restrictions.
  • Tell others to avoid Tata Sky. At least until they revise their terms and change restrictive policies. Another thing to remember is that there are other DTH players like Reliance, Airtel and new technologies such as IPTV that are on the horizon.

UPDATE, Mar-7: It turns out, 1-860-425-6633 is NOT a toll-free number either (though one certainly gets the impression). Another fact I forgot to add first time is that the 1-year guarantee does not cover every part of the equipment and only selected parts. Now someone in comments mentions that there are hidden annual maintenance charges of Rs.500 after the guarantee period and that you can land in serious trouble if you do not pay that.

UPDATE, Mar-7 (2): An anonymous user writing in comments below, made a couple of clarifications on Tata Sky's behalf. One - they can only take away "Tata Sky Hardware" (the dish) not the set-top box which is the consumer's property. As I replied below, this doesn't make any difference because the set-top box is useless without the dish. The dish should be the buyer's property and they should be allowed to receive any service they desire. The fact that Tata Sky doesn't allow this and that non-ownership of dish isn't made explicit prior to the purchase is is clearly a restrictive and unfair trade practice created solely to prevent competition.

Second, apparently, Tata Sky recently changed the clause about monitoring usage and now it's an opt-in feature. Why would anyone opt in to avail this is beyond me. Since it's the Tata Sky engineer who fills-in the contract form, how can the user even learn that such an option exists or ensure that it's not ticked after his signature? I certainly wasn't told about this during my installation. Clearly, the idea of the contract has to go. If a provider wants me to sign up and stay with them for a stipulated period, they should provide all the equipment for free.

By the way, this is now officially the most popular post on this blog. Thanks for all the encouragement, please tell others about this post and link to it from your blogs.

UPDATE, Mar-13: I received a comment elsewhere from an existing Tata Sky user that essentially said: "It isn't as bad as you're making it out to be - look, its working fine." I want to respond to this because I think many Tata Sky users might be feeling this way after reading my review.

I agreed early on in my review that the user experience - quality of broadcast and interaction with the features, is indeed superior. However, there's more to a product or service than the immediate user experience. My review of Tata Sky is more about the way the plan is structured and how it hijacks consumer rights.

There are certain assumptions that constitute what I'd call a "fair purchase" of a product or service. I assume that my following rights (among others) are being respected:
  1. The right to be explicitly told, prior to the purchase, the product (or product components), and/or service that is being purchased.

  2. The right to be explicitly told, prior to the purchase, the terms and conditions - in an easy to understand manner - that constitute the transaction.

  3. The right to be explicitly told, prior to the purchase, any important limitations of the product/service purchased.

  4. The right to be charged a reasonable price for the product/service and, if there are recurring payments to be made, the right to pay the agreed sum at reasonable intervals rather than in advance without any incentive.

  5. The right to have my personal information respected and/or the right to decide if I may allow to share it.

  6. The right to receive incentive/s for allowing to share my personal information if I so decide.

  7. The right to receive full utility inherent in the nature of the product/service without any restrictions artificially and intentionally imposed.

  8. The right to receive a refund within a stipulated period if I'm unsatisfied with the product/service.

  9. The right to exit the service without an added cost and/or the right to decide if I may retain the service for an agreeable period.

  10. The right to receive an incentive if I decide to retain the service for the agreed period.
Purchasing Tata Sky requires a consumer to abandon all the above rights. I believe that the benefits gained by making the purchase are not worth the compromise.

UPDATE, Apr-3: Since this post continues to get a lot of attention, I decided to update it with new information I gleaned recently. Although it might seem that Cable TV subscription costs (around Rs.300/mth in metros) are comparable with Tata Sky subscription (Rs.300/mth), yet if you add all the hidden costs of Tata Sky a very different picture emerges. This is particularly true in case of multiple TVs where Tata Sky is over two and a half times more expensive than cable over a five year period.

Five-Year Cost Comparison Between Cable TV (analogue) and Tata Sky

                       single TV      two TVs      three TVs

Cable TV          Rs.18,240     Rs.18,370     Rs.18,450

Tata Sky*         Rs.24,000     Rs.35,500     Rs.47,000

* assuming you don't relocate and your set top box doesn't breakdown after one year. If either of these happen, add additional cost. See the calculation behind this.

How was this calculated?

The costs in all cases include hardware, installation, subscription and maintenance costs (at today's prices) over a five year period. Basically, Cable TV is so cheap because it costs next to nothing to connect multiple TVs and because it has no maintenance costs. All you need is a coaxial cable splitter and you can connect as many TVs as you want. Since there is no STB so you don't have to worry about maintenance either.

Note that in case of Cable TV, the only installation expense is the cost of coaxial cable you use from the nearest connection to your house. The cable guy might quote a prohibitive amount for this wire but you have the option of getting your own (it's freely available at hardware stores) at a much cheaper price.

Here is a complete breakup of the costs over five year period for three televisions.

Cable TV - three TVs

Installation Wiring = Rs.8/m x 30m = Rs.240 (would vary)
Coaxial Cable Splitter (three-way) = Rs.50
Wiring for two additional TVs = Rs.8/m x 20m = Rs.160 approx.

Five years = Rs. 300 x 60 months = Rs.18,000

Zero maintenance

TOTAL Rs.18,450

Tata Sky - three TVs

Three set top boxes = Rs.3000 x 3 = Rs.9000
Installation primary = Rs.1000
Installation secondary = Rs.500 x 2 = Rs.1000

Five years = (Rs.300+100+100) x 60 months = Rs.30,000

Annual maintenance charges for three STBs after first year = (3 x Rs.500) x 4yrs = Rs.6,000

TOTAL Rs.47,000
Bottom Line: If you use Cable TV for three TVs over a ten year period, you save Rs.57,100. Good enough for a home theater projection system. You also incur zero cost on maintenance, zero cost on relocation, you get a larger collection of channels and more protection against price hike in subscription since you can pressure your cable operator but can't do anything if Tata Sky raises the prices.

UPDATE, Apr-26:

Tata Sky Drops 13 Zee Channels Without Explanation

Sometime around end of March Tata Sky stopped broadcasting 13 Zee channels without giving as much as an explanation over the reason behind the draconian action. Well, this is one gets when one surrenders their rights in favor of "excellent picture quality". As much as we all like to hate our cable operator, we'll have to admit that something like this would never happen with cable TV.

As TS user Sampath noted in comments below: "Tatasky makes a tomtom when it adds channels but is radiantly silent when channels are dropped." Apparently they even removed two Neo Sports channels recently, reducing total number of channels to 91 and not 100 as advertised.

Another user Pramila wrote on April 25: "Even today their site mentions that all these channels are available. This is cheating of the first order."

Those who have studied the TDSAT ruling behind this action say that Tata Sky will now save Rs.42 per consumer. However, they have not reduced subscription charges to pass on these savings even though they are quite prompt in increasing the price when additional costs are incurred by adding new channels.

The channels which have been discontinued by Tata Sky include Zee Classic, Zee Action, Zee Premier, ETC, Zee Music, Zee Sports, 24Ghante, Play TV, Zee Jagran, Zee Smile, and regional channels such as Zee Kannada, Zee Telegu and ETC Punjabi.

UPDATE, Sep-01:

TRAI Issues DTH Regulations: Big Win For Consumers

Over the past six months, this post has reached an estimated 100,000 people (directly and through word-of-mouth) and has received over 300 comments. But today all those who have suffered through the hands of their DTH operator have a chance to rejoice. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has just issued DTH guidelines that address almost all the issues raised in this post about six months ago and others identified in the comments.

From December 2007 onwards: DTH providers cannot lock you to use their own hardware - the STBs will now work with all providers. They must provide hardware refunds if the consumer wishes to return it. They must attend complaints of quality within a specified period. Prepayment vouchers must not be only paying mechanism. Providers cannot suddenly cancel any pay channel in a short period and without previous notice. Best of all, you can now choose which channels to watch - you don't have to subscribe to channel bouquet offered by the provider!

This is a major win for all those who have expressed their experiences of poor customer service and deceitful practices of Tata Sky. I'd like to think that this post too made a small contribution in bringing the issues to TRAI's attention. I did contact them several months ago with a copy of this post and comments. Although they were already working on DTH regulation at that time, yet many issues raised in this post were missing from their DTH consultation paper issued in Feb.

These problems have now been addressed. We'll never know if this post made a difference but ultimately what matters is that consumer rights have been upheld and DTH operators brought under control. Tata Sky and other operators can no longer do anything they want making a mockery of consumer rights.

To read more about the regulations, see the following stories:

Hindustan Times: Change DTH operator, keep set top box

Hindustan Times: Come December, order DTH a la carte

Business Standard: Trai directs DTH cos to offer refunds

Rediff: TRAI to bat for DTH customers

UPDATE, Jun-06 2008::

For the latest on issues with Tata Sky, head over to Kunal' blog.

Also note that this page features only about half the comments ("Newer" comments link below is not working). To check the latest comments, click on "Post a Comment" link at the bottom of this page and then click on "Newest".

In other news, today's HT reports that ESPN is taking TataSky to court: Channels off air, ESPN to take Tata Sky to court

P.S. Please keep comments civil. Disagreement is fine but insulting someone is not. Such comments will be promptly removed. Thanks.