Spectrum and Community Radio

Guest Post by Ram Bhat of maraa, a Bangalore-based media collective.

 

Community Radio became a reality in India, on the 16th of November 2006. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) released official guidelines enabling civil society organizations, educational institutions and agricultural centres to broadcast locally via FM.

The government, at that time, has said that they expected to see more than 4000 community radio stations operational by the first two years of releasing the guidelines. Today, almost six years down the line, there are about 132 operational radio stations and about 300 more applicants waiting in line. Lack of awareness, unnecessarily long and bureaucratic licensing procedure, and fear of sustainability, are amongst the chief reasons why community radio hasn’t really taken off as expected.

From the beginning, the entire process of becoming a community radio broadcaster has been divided into two parts. The MoIB controls radio and television in terms of administrative control through agreements like Grant of Permission Agreement (GOPA), but the use of frequency, (i.e. use of spectrum) is controlled by Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MoCIT) through a Wireless Operating License (WOL). The MoCIT by itself, also controls administrative licensing to Internet service providers and telecom service providers, and additionally is responsible, through its Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to allocate spectrum to any kind of user in the country.

This community radio as a category of media is an anomaly in the Indian media landscape. Television, radio, print, and even the Internet – access to all these media are usually through intermediary organizations/actors who control hardware, software, distribution or carriage. Sometimes private players have managed to control all steps of the value chain. However, Community Radio is the only medium where ordinary people have direct and substantive access to the spectrum, and can use their own hardware and software, to terrestrially broadcast information they have produced. Appropriately, the FM platform is suited to local and community media as it is Free To Air, and audiences don’t have to pay anything to receive the signal.

It is a promising sign of how democratic governments with sufficient political will can realize the true potential of our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in Article 19, Clause 1, Sub Clause a of the Indian Constitution. It is also a very good way to interpret Judge P.B Sawant’s statement in the 1995 Supreme Court case, “Airwaves are public property”.

However, while the intention and the spirit behind the policymaking maybe to enable free speech, the letter of the policy is surely disabling it with every passing year.

A license area for community radio is defined currently at 100 kilometres. In a given license area, DoT has allowed only 3 frequencies to be allotted for community radio. Due to low transmission power, community radio stations will never be able to cover large swathes of any license area, due to this arbitrary and strange decision of the DoT.

Last year, as many as 12 applications from the State of Jharkhand have been denied a license to broadcast because the Ministry of Home Affairs have rejected the application. This, in spite of supportive and positive efforts from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) has announced that they will allow community radio stations to register and receive government advertisements, but at the same time, there are clauses relating to service tax which means that community radio stations as non profit entities cannot register, since they don’t have service tax numbers. After more than 2 years of paralysis, this issue seems to have finally been sorted out.

One of the biggest problems with the current policy is that broadcast of news and current affairs are prohibited. Unfortunately, it is prohibited for both private commercial and community radio. India, is perhaps one of the few countries where radio is not allowed to broadcast news. To make matters worse, the guidelines have refused to define news and/or current affairs, thereby making the said clause a loophole for future potential harassment if and when needed. I can’t prove it, but it would not be unreasonable to claim that this kind of blanket vague clauses in a supposedly enabling policy, only result in a chilling effect, where community radio stations end up suppressing more than expressing.

The worst blow however has been claimed by the DoT. As of April 1st 2012, the Department, without prior notice, without consultation or discussion, the annual spectrum fee for community radio was raise from Rs. 19,700 to Rs. 91,000. Many thought that the revised fee was a typographical error concerning the placement of 9s and 1s! No such luck. The community radio stations, which are already broadcasting will be severely hit, since from now on they will have to pay Rs. 91,000 every year. Potential applicants will now be discouraged from even applying for a license.

Both Community Radio Forum of India as well as Community Radio Association of India have registered their protest with MoIB and MoCIT. Member organizations, community radio stations, and even audiences of these radio stations have gone on record detailing how this spectrum fee hike will spell doom for their radio. As way of protest, on May 9th, several community radio stations announced the fee hike to their listeners, played a protest song, and then switched off their transmitters for the rest of the day – as a day of silence. The silence however, is clearly not deafening enough for the government.

In a recent meeting, the representative of the DoT has said that the spectrum fee hike was for all terrestrial spectrum users, and based on a formula. Community Radio was not singled out. The fee hike is agnostic of what purpose the spectrum is being used. On the surface of it, while this seems like a sound defence – it could very well be at the heart of the problem.

The Department has control over how airwaves are used. The authority comes from the 1885 Indian Telegraph Act. It also empowers the government to charge users as it sees fit. Clearly, this is not a law or policy related problem. The problem lies more in the domain of the moral, or as some would say, less charitably, in that of common sense.

Should the government use the same logic to charge for a private commercial radio, which operates at 6000 Watts and makes profit, indeed exists to make profit, and a non-profit entity, which operates a 100-watt station to empower its local community by giving them a voice?

One of the advantages of the so-called 2G scam case has been that the word spectrum has been firmly registered in the public consciousness. However, the disadvantage is that the word spectrum is also associated with corruption and the notion that it is a scarce natural resource which is being allocated by corrupt politicians for lower than what its worth. There is very little debate about how worth is arrived at. One way is auction, which is what is being done with most spectrum now. However, it is not and should not be the only way of allocating spectrum.

Airwaves or spectrum, or wireless communications, are increasingly becoming the only viable way of reaching out to rural, remote and hilly parts of the community. Wireless is the only way, these communities can express themselves. In this context, the primary principle cannot be maximizing profit from spectrum allocation. The primary principle should be access and empowerment of the people.

Thus, the entity which allocates spectrum should first see who is applying for the use of spectrum, what is the purpose for which spectrum use is sought, and then also consider technical factors like transmission power, antenna power, nature of entity etc. Based on certain fixed parameters or criteria, the logic for charging fees for spectrum should vary. Indeed some sectors could be charged very highly, some sectors could be, or should be exempted from paying anything.

The key question however is who decides? It is in this decision making that corruption flourishes. It is precisely for this reason, that the courts have also gone in favour of auction as perhaps the best method for allocation. However, this amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The corruption is not because of the system of allocation. The corruption exists because the same entity decides the method of allocation and then also collects the revenue. This is exactly what has been happening with telecom since the beginning. What is needed in India, is an independent regulator, who will decide the exact method of allocating spectrum to each kind of user for specific purposes. The revenue can go directly in to the union budget or to the concerned department. This will go further in cleaning up the system than blindly choosing auction as the best method. It will not only discourage all categories of spectrum users, it will also encourage government officials at all levels to think that spectrum is a cash cow which has to be utilized to the maximum without any other consideration. It has side effects. The WPC order of making annual spectrum fee of Rs. 91,000 seems to be one such side effect. There could be others. In a worst-case scenario, next year, the government might abolish annual fee and just ask even community radios to bid for spectrum through auctions.

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