Confusion reigns over China satellite plan

Confusion surrounds plans by the mainland's broadcasting authorities to build a digital, direct-to-home (DTH) satellite television system for up to 45 million households in rural areas unable to receive signals.

Reports indicated that officials with the State Administration for Radio, Film and TV (RFTV) had chosen South African-based pay TV operator MIH to build the DTH system.

MIH's success apparently had come in the face of bids from nine overseas companies, including Loral Space and Communications, Hughes Electronics, General Instrument Corp and News Corp's technology subsidiary NDS. The companies had each been asked to tender for the project last summer.

Reports from Beijing suggested MIH's victory was based on a plan to offer substantial discounts on the US$100 million capital costs of setting up the system. In exchange, the mainland will allow MIH to take a small percentage of revenues.

However, sources in the Ministry of Information and Industry (MII) have disputed unofficial comments from their colleagues in the RFTV that MIH was the winner, claiming instead that no decision had been made.

The MII was created by Premier Zhu Rongji earlier this year from the now-disbanded Ministry of Radio, Film and TV (MRFTV), and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and the Ministry of the Electronics Industries.

However, disputes among bureaucrats reluctant to lose any influence made the MII's exact role and powers unclear for many inside and outside the mainland and the parameters of the nationwide DTH project could fall inside both the ministry and the state administration.

The State Council ruled in late July that the MII is in charge of the overall planning and administration of the national TV broadcasting network, including the country's more than 1,500 cable TV systems, with the former MRFTV left covering the day-to-day implementation and enforcement of these policies.

The bureaucratic turf wars have overshadowed the plan that is designed to carry the eight China Central Television (CCTV) channels into rural areas currently unable to receive the signal either by terrestrial broadcasts or cable.

No decision has been made on what company will build the satellite that will carry the DTH platform after the proposed start-up date of 2000.

It remains unclear if the system will be expanded to include more of the mainland's estimated 280 million TV households after it begins operations.

There are conflicting reports about how many channels the DTH platform will carry, if any, in addition to the CCTV slate.

Any additional capacity is likely to be taken up by channels made by the mainland's 15 provincial TV stations, some of which produce as many as four channels.

Foreign channels are forbidden to be broadcast on a 24 basis, other than to government buildings, higher-tariff hotels and housing compounds for foreigners.