October deadline for pay-TV 'unrealistic'

HONGKONG may not see the launch of pay-TV by October as originally predicted by the Government, the deputy secretary for Recreation and Culture revealed yesterday.

Mrs Rachel Cartland said the October on-air deadline was tight and possibly unrealistic.

She would not, however, give details on the progress of negotiations with China seeking its approval of the 12-year franchise or reasons for another possible delay in the issuing of the cable-TV licence.

The latest set back in the long-running saga to get pay-TV up and running was called a disappointment by lone bidder Wharf Cable's managing director, Mr Stephen Ng Tin-hoi.

''It is disappointing because we would like to be on air as quickly as possible. But it all depends on when a licence is issued,'' said Mr Ng.

''Under the terms of the licence, we are supposed to be on air nine months after the licence is awarded and we will try to beat that. There is still a chance we may be on air by October, but it all depends when a licence is issued,'' he added.

But when asked if Wharf was still eager to commit itself to the licence, Mr Ng replied: ''Absolutely - we just want to be on air competing. You can't sit down doing planning and not implement for long before the itch to be on the front line takes hold.'' He said Wharf had already committed in excess of $200 million to the project, had hired around 80 new staff members and was in the advanced stages of discussions with programme suppliers, including CNN and Fox.

The only bid for the cable-TV franchise was submitted on September 30 and looked set to pass smoothly through the assessment and legislative processes. But China threw a spanner in the works by announcing it may not recognise franchises it had not approved after 1997.

While the Executive Council has endorsed legislation which paves the way for Cable TV, Wharf has still not been awarded a provisional licence, which was due to be granted this month.

Mrs Cartland said yesterday a provisional licence legally guaranteeing Wharf would get the 12-year franchise may now not be issued at all and she said it was not possible to specify when a full licence would be issued.

She did however state that any licence would need China's approval. There are no negotiations with China over the issue at present, but Mrs Cartland said China was being kept up to date on all developments through the Joint Liaison Group.