On the 8th of December, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), published a consultation paper titled “Issues Related to prescribing Minimum Channel Spacing, within a License Service Area, in FM Radio Sector of India“. The title is self-explanatory, and there are a few interesting implications for radio in there.
Firstly, what is channel spacing? Assume you can tune into BIG FM at 92.7. The Reliance group has obtained the frequency 92.7 from the Department of Telecommunications, through its Wireless Protocol Committee which handles all frequency allocations in India. Now in FM Radio, (the band is identified as 88-108 MHz), there is a minimum channel spacing of 800 KHz currently. That means the next available frequency available for FM Radio is 93.5 (92.7+0.8). So assuming one starts at the beginning of the FM Band, i.e. 88 MHz, and assuming there is 800 KHz separation between two channels, one can calculate the number of FM frequencies in a given license area – let us assume one license area is defined as a radius of 100 kilometers. However, most Metro cities in India have a maximum of 12-14 FM stations broadcasting. This is because the FM band is used by many stakeholders. There are three primary ones – public broadcasting, i.e. All India Radio, private FM radio, and community radio. Of course, some FM frequencies are also reserved for police, army, etc.
Now, TRAI has proposed that the channel spacing be reduced to 400 KHz from the current 800 KHz. First, the timing of this is suspect. Private FM frequencies are auctioned off to private bidders. Companies can thus bid for the same frequency in multiple license areas. This is why Big FM has the same frequency in all cities. The auction happens in a phased manner, and so far two auctions have taken place. In the first phase, 101 bids were received, but 64 defaulted on payment and of the remaining 37 who paid, only 22 were operational.
The hesitancy was because the government was taking too much money from them annually irrespective of whether these FM stations were earning profit or not. The government realized that they were killing the sector, and changed tracks to revenue share. The second phase saw a much better response. Around 224 stations became operational after this phase. Cities/towns with population more than 300,000 were considered, as well as state capitals.
Now the government wants to auction off more frequencies in the third phase, and just before the third phase, TRAI releases a consultation paper on reducing channel spacing. Strange. What’s even stranger is that most established corporates already have media ownership in terms of radio stations. They would surely oppose – some of them already have opposed saying 800 KHz spacing should be retained. Although there are some amusing references to the ‘development’ of the nation, the explicit line taken is that the pie is already small, and new entrants, will break the sector completely. Further, even in Phase II we have seen that while the major markets were snapped up very quickly, smaller towns, frequencies in J &K, Assam etc were not taken up in spite of some incentives. So we can safely assume that there is a significantly strong lobby of new corporate players who want to get into the radio market, specifically in the big cities. Ironically, it is only the success of the incumbents which would have prompted this move.
In spite of the objections by the incumbents, it looks like the channel spacing will be reduced, and our cities will have lot of more radio stations. The question is – Is this enough? We hail increase in number of channels as a boost for media diversity, pluralism and democratization of media and our society. Will reduction in channel spacing really help achieve all of this? Unlikely.
Take Bangalore for instance. We have 13 FM stations in the city. Roughly speaking, if there are 13 stations at 800 KHz separation, we can assume that there will be at least 20-odd stations if not exactly the double, if the spacing is reduced to 400 KHz. However, most of these will be made available to private FM channels, again broadcasting at 3000 watts. Now there will be 20 odd FM stations broadcasting the same Bollywood and Kannada film songs, with the odd English songs thrown in. Where is the diversity and pluralism, much less development of the nation?
Secondly, we cannot forget that there is legitimate space given by government for community radio stations to broadcast, albeit at 100 watts. While people listen to radio on mobile phones there is no problem – since mobile phones are capable of handling even 200 KHz separation. The question here is not of reception device but of transmission device. Frankly, without taking names, there has been leakage of transmission to adjacent channels from both private and community radio stations.
In a village say 100-150 kilometeres from Bangalore, the private FM station will still manage to reach that community. Assume there’s a community radio station there. If the latter drowns out the private FM station in that community, there’s hardly any problem, because this small village is anyway not the primary audience or market for the private companies. However, if the situation is reversed, it might become a problem. There are now a handful of urban community radio stations. Bangalore has a couple, Hyderabad has one, Delhi has three or four and so on. Assume now that the space just got very crowded, and the transmission is…leaky. Definitely, the less powerful community radio station will immediately get drowned out by the more powerful private radio station, broadcasting at just 400 KHz away.
So is the answer to retain 800 KHz separation? Fortunately there is no need to throw the baby with the bathwater on this one. 400 KHz channel spacing can be a huge opportunity for FM radio sector, provided the government plays it right. If spectrum is public property, and must be used in the public interest, then one can safely assume that reduction in channel spacing is done in public interest. That means two objectives must be achieved – realistic increase in diversity and pluralism within the private FM sector. There can be reserved licenses for classical music, folk music, talk radio, educational radio etc. On the other hand, from a FM band perspective, the reduction in channel spacing needs to be equally helpful and productive for community radio. Thus, the number of frequencies allotted for community radio in the FM band needs to double; and some field studies need to be done on Quality of Service (QoS) issues related to FM transmission. If there are indeed instances of interference even with 800 KHz, then concrete action needs to be taken. For instance, a mechanism can be set up by DoT, wherein listeners or radio stations can complain and/or send evidence of interference. Stations guilty of leakage should face punitive action.
Most importantly, as one of the last analogue media industries which is surprisingly growing, the government needs to be transparent about its plans on spectrum allocation, management and licensing. Public property needs to be considered just so, in spirit as well as in letter.
The Community Radio Forum of India has sent comments to TRAI on this issue. Click here to download (pdf)