SingTel warns of price hike for EPL channels

Telco stops selling basic football package after cross-carriage ruling

SingTel stopped selling its Sports+ basic pay-TV football package on Wednesday - even though there are three weeks left before the current season of the English Premier League (EPL) ends.

The telco did this the same evening that the Media Development Authority (MDA) invoked its cross-carriage rules and mandated SingTel to share the Singapore broadcast rights for the next three seasons of the EPL with rival StarHub.

In an interview with The Straits Times yesterday, Mr Allen Lew, chief executive of SingTel's digital life unit, also warned of an imminent price hike to its EPL channels should it fail in its appeal to the Minister for Communications and Information to overturn the media regulator's decision.

The $34.90 Sports+ bundle comes with EPL and other premium content like Uefa Champions League and Spanish La Liga - which Mr Lew said has been strategically subsidised to win subscribers for its mio TV service.

Once these customers are on board, SingTel can get more business by selling them other services like video-on-demand movies.

But it makes no business sense for SingTel to do the same for customers on StarHub's platform, and as such, he saw no reason to extend the subsidy to them.

If SingTel's appeal to overturn the MDA ruling fails, it will also have to share the entire Sports+ basic package - at the same price - with StarHub.

It ended the package to head off this scenario.

Meanwhile, the ruling will allow StarHub pay-TV subscribers to watch the next three seasons' EPL matches on their existing set-top boxes without having to subscribe separately for mio TV. StarHub customers will be billed by SingTel.

"The cross-carriage policy was intended for people to have access to content," noted Mr Lew.

But the imminent price hike would become an "unintended consequence" if subsidised content had to be shared, he added.

The hike will not affect existing Sports+ customers until their contracts expire.

Another reason why consumers may have to pay more: SingTel would also have to compensate StarHub for distributing the content to the latter's subscribers.

The "cross-carriage" fee - a commercial arrangement between SingTel and StarHub - could run into the "millions" per year depending on the number of channels shared and the period of the screenings, Mr Lew said.

MDA's ruling came after it looked into StarHub's complaint about not being able to negotiate its set of rights for EPL after SingTel concluded its own non-exclusive deal with the Football Association Premier League (FAPL) last December.

Concluding its investigations, MDA said the agreement between SingTel and FAPL was, in effect, exclusive.

When contacted yesterday, an MDA spokesman said "SingTel cannot claim to be unaware" of the objectives and requirements of the cross-carriage measure, which had been widely consulted upon before it came into effect in August 2011.

"In negotiating the EPL contract, SingTel would have taken into account commercial and legal risks including the possibility that the cross-carriage measure may be triggered... and the implications on pricing," he said.

Asked about the cross-carriage fee, Ms Jeannie Ong, StarHub's head of corporate communications and investor relations, said the commercial terms for cross-carriage were agreed with SingTel and took effect from late November 2011.

The fee was paid by StarHub when it had to share its exclusive Uefa Euro 2012 content with SingTel subscribers.

Then, SingTel's customers could access all 31 live matches on their mio TV boxes for the same $69.55 paid by StarHub's customers.

"Likewise, we believe that SingTel should honour its contractual obligations," Ms Ong said.

itham@sph.com.sg