The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft) has succeeded in its push to have mainland banks arrange billions of yuan in loans to subsidise television set-top boxes under a state policy to boost digital cable subscriptions. Sarft vice-minister Zhang Haitao said key cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Ningbo, Dalian, Zhuhai and Yancheng were looking at the subsidised model to roll out the digital service. Mr Zhang also suggested operators change their content focus from overseas television channels to data-based services, such as weather and traffic information. In addition to video programming, digital audiences will be able to receive real-time information, surf the internet, engage in distance learning and send short text messages to mobile users. 'Development banks had been studying the market for months and they want to give several billion yuan of longer than 10-year loans to support a change in business model [to set-box subsidy],' Mr Zhang told local government officials on Tuesday. 'How come the banks see no risk but we are afraid of doing it? With a supportive policy, the whole changing of the business model is a risk-free 'sunshine project'.' Mr Zhang said the 49 pilot cities should learn from the experience of Foshan and Qingdao - which already operate subsidised pilot models through Hong Kong-based DVN (Holdings) - and form policies to operate digital cable services in a market-oriented way. The government expects 30 million digital cable subscribers next year, despite an uptake of just 201,000 by the end of last year. Industry players see the subsidised model as a 'self-cheating' effort to boost user numbers instead of paying subscriptions. 'This is only an effort to meet its bullish viewer target. Without appealing content, there is no real revenue or business model for the whole industry,' said the head of a foreign broadcaster. 'It is good to have a critical mass access to the set-boxes but content is the key to drive subscription.' National media groups are also disgruntled over having to switch to data-based services, which are unattractive to family audiences, according to market sources. 'The development of loan and debt funding is positive as it may help cable systems absorb the costs of digital ... but how operators achieve a return on this investment is critical,' Media Partners Asia executive director Vivek Couto said. 'To focus on value-added services such as basic interactive applications relating to stock information, weather and news, has not worked globally and probably won't work in China. The pay and premium channels and programming are critical to increase [average revenue per user] and generate meaningful subscription.' IMS Research estimates digital set-top box shipments to the mainland will go from 3.9 million last year to more than 20 million in 2008.