Spectrum fee hike detrimental to community radio â€"Part II

IN Media Business | 31/07/2012
Add this to already restrictive provisions and eligibility criteria,
and how can this be a people’s medium, asks RAM BHAT, in the second of a two-part report.

From radio to telecom, the assumption for many years now, has been that spectrum is a scarce and limited resource. However, this statement has many assumptions behind it, not all of which are applicable or true today. For instance, even today, the government has a channel spacing of 800 KHz for frequency allocation.

This means that if one community radio is allocated 90.4 MHz, then the next available frequency for allocation will only be 91.2 MHz. The logic of this is that most people will listen to these radio stations on old analogue radio sets that can handle nothing less than 800 KHz. The reality however is that today, most people listen to radio on their mobile phones. Mobile phones can handle channel separation of even 200 KHz. In such a situation, it would be perfectly safe to reduce channel spacing to even 400 KHz. This alone would mean that the number of frequencies available to community radio would double!

Another problem is to work with frequency allocation alone. It is important to remember that the power of transmission, height of antenna, and gain of antenna also govern spectrum use. For example, if a community radio station operates on 90.4 MHz, but is transmitting only at 100 Watts (Effective Radiated Power), then that 90.4 frequency will be occupied for only 10-15 kilometres. The same frequency can be repeated say 20 kilometres adjacent to the first station.

In cities, due to interference, the frequencies can be repeated at even lesser distances. It has not been mentioned explicitly, but the license area for one frequency is 100 kilometres. For a station broadcasting at 100 watts, the license area could be 30 kilometres in rural areas, and 20 kilometres or even 15 kilometres in urban areas. This could mean that one roughly has 3 times more frequencies in rural and nearly 5 times more spectrum in urban areas.

From early this year, the MoCIT had increased the spectrum fee (annual fee) from Rs. 19700 to Rs. 91,000 totally arbitrarily and without consultation from any stakeholder. At the time of writing, there have been informal reports that Kapil Sibal has waived spectrum fees, but this is beside the point. Tomorrow, the bureaucrats at MoCIT might get transferred, and another set of bureaucrats might again hike the fee. The point is to remove this sword of Damocles by making all aspects of policy change subject to transparent, consultative and inclusive processes.

Finally, on the issue of spectrum, today there is a huge crunch in spectrum availability in urban areas. Due to educational institutions getting clearances quickly, and due to them getting a policy earlier than NGOs, today the educational institutions have cornered the three frequencies available in most cities. Just because some communities are living in cities, does not mean that they are less marginalized. There needs to be an acknowledgment and inclusion of mechanisms in the policy towards the marginalized living in cities.  As a starting point, some broad principles of spectrum management and allocation could be at least mentioned in the policy, instead of leaving everything in the hands of the MoCIT.

Eligibility

Only 3 categories of applicants are deemed eligible for community radio – educational institutions, agricultural centres, and non-profit organizations. Clearly, again, the criteria betray emphasis on the nature of the content rather than other key principles of community radio.

One of the most significant aspects of community radio is that communities own and manage the means of producing information. People need to be seen as producers, and not just consumers of information. However, the community-based ownership of the radio station becomes a moot point when a large university, Krishi Vigyan Kendra or even a large NGO gets a license to broadcast.

In the last six years, there has been a sense of complacency, where it has been enough for an organization to produce programmes which are developmental in nature, and it has been enough to define participation as the mere presence of community members at the programming stage. Sadly, community based ownership and management is the exception and not the norm in the community radio sector today.

The policy needs to re-think policy, specifically in terms of community ownership and management. In this light, it may be advisable to have separate categories of farm and campus radio, which although will serve a very important function, nevertheless will remain distinct from community radio. NGOs who are given licenses could be asked to demonstrate concrete exit policies in 3-5 years, thereby handing over ownership of infrastructure and management. The details will need to be worked out consultatively with all stakeholders.

If civil society, practitioners and government can work together to achieve these reforms for the CR policy, one can start to hope that people will finally start feeling that this is their platform.

(Ram Bhat is the co-founder of Maraa, a media and arts collective in Bangalore. Vice-President of the Community Radio Forum of India, a national level advocacy body for the community radio sector, he has been involved in the community media sector for the last eight years, His current interests are related to policies in the area of spectrum, broadband internet, telecom, white spaces, and digitization of media. He can be reached at ram@maraa.in)

 

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