Thursday, April 19, 2012

Trai's cut in radio frequency spacing proposal raises red flag

Seeking better utilisation of radio frequency spectrum, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has recommended that the frequencies for FM radio channels within a licence service area should be released with a minimum spacing of 400 KHz from the current 800 KHz.

Several private FM radio operators feel that the cutting of frequency spacing would lead to a deterioration in the quality of reception and impact the proper enjoyment of content and programmes.

In its recommendation to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, Trai said the FM channels operating with a channels spacing of 400 KHz should be radiated from effectively co-located sites and transmitted with equal power.

The 43-page recommendations by the regulator follow a request from the Ministry in August last year. The Ministry had requested Trai to reconsider the issue of minimum channel spacing within a licence service area in the FM radio sector.
The regulator has also written a letter to I&B secretary Uday Kumar Varma in this regard. 

It said the exact location of frequencies may be done taking into account the frequencies and power of the existing set-ups/already allocated frequencies in the adjacent licence service areas so that the criteria for frequency re-use are satisfied. All the future planning if frequencies and development of the infrastructure should be done accordingly.

The co-location of transmitters has already been recommended by Trai in its earlier recommendations pertaining to expansion of FM radio broadcasting through private participation.

The minimum channel spacing - the frequency separation between the adjacent channels' carrier frequencies - is an important parameter which determines faithful reception of individual at the licenser's FM radio receiver set.

With the improvement in the quality of radio receivers, penetration of digital devices such as mobile sets among the masses and alternate designs of the FM radio transmitter set-ups, it is now technically feasible to transmit more FM radio channels with reduced channel spacing in a given licence service area.
This should ensure effective utilisation of scarce radio frequency spectrum, the regulator has said.

Earlier, Trai had asked for stakeholders' comments on the issue in which only Radio Mirch has supported the recommendation while all the other private FM operators had expressed concern citing cost escalation, devaluation of current radio business and negative impact on the quality of sound of current stations as reasons for not supporting the move.

Those who have not supported the proposal are FM arms of media houses like HT Media (Fever FM), TV Today Network (Oye FM), Next Media Works (Radio One) and Music Broadcast (Radio City).

Entertainment Networks India Ltd, which runs Radio Mirchi, said: "The Trai's recommendations on Phase III and minimum channel spacing of FM radio are progressive in nature and if they are accepted by the Government in spirit, it will mean rapid proliferation of private FM radio on a far larger scale than what we have seen in Phase II – reaching out to the fringe populations of our country. In light of this, our submission is that the operating control of the private FM radio companies should vest with Indian companies and Indian citizens. Foreign controlling ownership, i.e. equal or greater than 25 per cent would mean that editorial and content control no longer rests with Indian citizens."

However, Radio One believes the reduction should not be done in A and A+ towns as these are towns where all the existing players have paid the maximum licence fee. "These are also the most crowded FM markets with challenges even at 800 kHz separation. It should be considered only if existing players are allowed 15 years co terminus licence with new players and government is willing to bear the cost of the shift to lower channel spacing," it stated.

Radio One also said that if the channel spacing is done without the co terminus for existing players, there is no level playing field and "existing players will be forced to take legal recourse". It warned that Phase III would get delayed as channel spacing is an issue which will take long time to resolve technically.

Meanwhile, Radio City said that the decision of reducing the channel spacing would not only be "detrimental towards the interest of the existing broadcasters, but more importantly to the general public."

It also said that there would be a substantial modification and investment required in the existing infrastructure. "The private FM radio broadcasters will have to invest to the tune of Rs 100 million for each city to make the said reduction in frequency technically possible. Such investment would simply make the transition to Phase III unviable for a lot of the existing and new broadcasters," it said. [ 20/04]