Why football fans feel kicked about

SINGAPORE - The displeasure of football fans over the hefty increase in fees to watch the English Premier League (EPL) on television is understandable.

SingTel's announcement - that its standalone EPL channels would cost $59.90 a month, significantly more than the $34.90 Sports+ bundle last season, which came with EPL, Champions League and other sports content - has incensed consumers. They wonder why they should be subjected to this steep hike in fees.

There is a sense that consumers are being punished for the effect of cross-carriage rules which mandate that SingTel shares its latest EPL broadcast rights with rival StarHub. SingTel raised the fees after Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim rejected its appeal against the Media Development Authority's (MDA) cross-carriage ruling.

However, it would be wrong to pin the blame for the fee increase on that ruling, which was motivated by unbridled bidding for exclusive prime content that led to higher prices.

Instead, the higher prices reflect SingTel's market response to sharing standalone EPL channels with StarHub's customers, a necessity that has undermined SingTel's strategy of subsidising EPL content heavily to gain market share.

For consumers, too, the market holds the answer. They will benefit if StarHub's EPL packages are competitive and thus give them real choice. SingTel's just-announced unveiling of a free app for customers to stream EPL matches live on their tablets and smartphones shows its inventive reaction to market conditions in the wake of the cross-carriage ruling.

Greater competition between the two telcos, spurred by the MDA ruling, will benefit customers ultimately. The excessive use of exclusive deals had inconvenienced some customers, who had been forced to accept dual-pay television subscriptions.

They also had to contend with two set-top boxes and controls because universal set-up boxes did not materialise owing to commercial and technical problems.

Even with the companies trying to offer competitive packages, however, overlaps would mean paying for some content that might never be watched.

However, an a la carte model might not be any cheaper and could affect diversity. Going forward, SingTel's and StarHub's customers should signal the key services they prefer and indicate the price range with which they would be comfortable.

Since doing so individually would be a cumbersome effort, the Consumers Association of Singapore could coordinate their responses. Such feedback by customers can help ensure that the demand-supply equation does not work to their disadvantage in a bidding war for prime content.


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