I-Cable looks at free TV

Rose Major

I-Cable Communications, owner of Hong Kong Cable TV, will reportedly consider applying for a licence to offer free-to-air TV – and the government seems minded to award one.

A statement from the company said it was “not aware of any reasons” for increases in its share price or trading volume after its share price on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange shot up HK$0.47 to HK$1.24, an increase of 61%. But reports previously had cited a spokeman saying that the company was looking to diversify into free TV via its networks, should it receive the necessary licence from the government.

While there is currently a ban on pay-TV operators also owning free-to-air interests, Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development, Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan, said the government could support i-Cable’s bid. After all, and somewhat confusingly, free-to-air broadcaster TVB is allowed pay-TV operations. i-Cable is yet to formally apply for a licence, but has requested the ownership laws be changed to allow it to hold both pay-TV and free-TV licences.

A decision to offer a free-to-air platform as well as pay-TV could provide the company with a new revenue stream. Hong Kong Cable TV is having now to share with PCCW’s Now TV IPTV platform the pay-TV space it previously dominated. The company passes 95% of Hong Kong homes with its network.

But i-Cable seemed keen to distance itself from the move. A statement from the company said: “We also confirm that there are no negotiations or agreements relating to intended acquisitions or realisations,” which the company needs to disclose to the stockmarket.

I-Cable’s stock has been rising slowly over recent months, up from a low of HK$0.40 in October 2008 but has more recently been hovering around HK$0.70-80.

If the government were to award i-Cable a licence without a competitive tender process, there would also be something of a storm. Should the government decide more competition for free-to-air broadcasters TVB and ATV is needed, there is likely to be much interest in any available licence and i-Cable would be almost certain to be just one of many companies fighting for the prize.