Cable television takes over Lithuania

  • 2001-05-10
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
VILNIUS - Television has played a special role in Lithuania ever since independence. Almost as soon as Lithuanian civilians standing vigil at the Vilnius TV tower were attacked by Soviet troops and tanks, the event was relayed around the world via satellite.

At the time, local residents were protecting their domestic broadcasting outlet, but Lithuanians well understood the international significance of media for the cause of independence: after the massacre, then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was forced into negotiations with the first independent government in Vilnius in 50 years, with Lithuania's "Singing Revolution" eventually carrying the day.

Even before independence, residents in Vilnius and other cities had erected satellite dishes and were receiving international news programming. Informal cable operators continued to operate in the legal gray-zone following independence. Some of them went semi-legitimate and registered as companies, although protection of intellectual property rights wasn't a priority in the first years of independence even among regular television broadcasters.

The Lithuanian Parliament has since addressed the issue of licensing cable operators. The Telecommunications Act originally adopted in 1995 and revised in 1998 defines a cable television network as a telecommunications network and places it under the jurisdiction of the Telecommunications Regulatory Service appointed by the Lithuanian government and approved by the president. The Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission began issuing licenses for Lithuanian cable networks in 1996.

Since regulation was introduced the public's demand for cable TV hasn't abated. An SIC Gallup Media poll from February to April, 1999 found 15.5 percent of the Lithuanian viewing audience was tuned in to cable re-broadcasts, and that another 11 percent was watching the independent programming and exclusive films offered by Lithuanian cable stations on their own channels during the work week. Cable stations took twice as much of the viewing audience as local stations in Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda and Jonava.

There are about 50 cable operators in Lithuania currently. From Vilkaviskis to Naujoji Akmene, from Kupiskis to Druskininkai, more rural markets also have cable access. But the larger markets, Vilnius and Kaunas, have more plentiful offerings. The Vilnius region has 10 licensed cable operators according to the last available information, seven of which operate within the city of Vilnius. Even in Vilnius coverage isn't complete; – areas in the south and southeast of the municipality still lack a licensed provider.

Because cable television licenses are given for a limited territory, there's no incentive for cable companies to compete for clients outside their zones. Instead, the tendency has been toward consolidation. Perhaps the most ambitious movement in the Vilnius market was the arrival of C Gates, a joint operation between the license-holders Kabeliniai Rysiu Tinklai, Trigeris and Salmija formed in November 1997.

The Estonian company Levicom holds controlling shares in Trigeris and KRT. Levicom belongs to the Swedish telecommunications company NetCom, which owns the Lithuanian mobile telephone company Tele2 as well.

In Sweden NetCom's major competitor is Telia, which together with Finland's Sonera controls 60 percent of Lithuanian Telecom shares and 55 percent of Lithuanian mobile telephone and Internet service provider Omnitel.

C Gates, whose symbol is a plastic airport gate sign in green and black instead of the more standard blue and white, offers a variety of channels in the languages of Europe's largest states – Russian, French, German, Polish and even Belarusian. It currently serves parts of Vilnius and Kaunas.

Besides rebroadcasting local programming, it also features BBC World and BBC Prime, CNN, CNBC/National Geographic and a number of music, fashion, travel and other specialty channels. C Gates rebroadcasts 10 radio stations on cable, including RTL Radio and Virgin Radio alongside local commercial and public stations.

It has pay TV offerings, a novelty in the Lithuanian viewing market, and was the first cable provider to offer cable Internet connections via a fiber optic network that is still being expanded. It calls the service Tele2Internet.

The price for the 32 kbps connection is somewhat high by local standards, a 350 litas ($87.50) initial hook-up charge and 170 litas per month for unlimited Internet access. A C Gates spokeswoman told The Baltic Times that the service is currently only available in Vilnius Old Town and the New Town, near the train station.

Balticum TV, whose license is confined to the city of Klaipeda and the municipality of Kretinga, offers a range of cable Internet plans, with speeds from 20 to 2 Mbps and monthly charges from 120 litas.

Cable provider INIT, serving the Kalnieciai, Eiguliai, Dainava and Silainiai neighborhoods in Kaunas, produces its own programming, including the children's show "Bed-time story," "Kaunas News" and "Our Pets."

Balticum, INIT and C Gates all belong to the Lithuanian Cable Television Association. Members of the association began jointly broadcasting films dubbed in Lithuanian in late 1998.

Besides programming in Russian, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, English and French, Vilnius cable operator Vinita also offers Belarusian TV and Ukrainian TV to customers.

So far no Vilnius cable enterprise has tried to serve its clientele anything from Latvia or Estonia. C Gates manager Roger Gascomb said, "Market research data shows that clients don't want to watch programming from neighboring Baltic states." No stations from Scandinavia and only a few from a single former East-bloc nation – Poland – are rebroadcast by Lithuanian cable operators.

The average price for hook-up in Vilnius is around 120 litas with monthly charges totaling around 20 litas.

A complete list of licensed Lithuanian cable operators is available on the Web site of the Lithuanian State Radio Frequency Service, at