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FM guidelines need to be amended for migration to digital radio broadcasting: TRAI

MUMBAI: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is wanting to develop an ecosystem which will encourage private FM radio broadcasters to move to digital radio broadcasting.

This will improve the audio quality for the listeners and broadcasters will also be able to air three-four programmes/channels on a single frequency. Under the analogue mode, broadcasters are only able to push through one programme per frequency.

TRAI has said that FM policy guidelines will need to be amended if the existing players are to be encouraged to migrate to digital radio broadcasting from the analogue mode of transmission.

India is largely an analogue radio broadcasting market and Phase III does not permit use of digital technology for private broadcasters. State-owned All India Radio (AIR), which operates 420 radio stations, has initiated digitisation of its radio network in three phases.

To push things forward, TRAI on Monday issued a consultation paper on ‘Issues related to Digital Radio Broadcasting in India’, seeking stakeholders’ comments by 4 September and counter comments by 18 September.

While listing out the benefits of digital radio over analogue terrestrial radio, TRAI has said that the simplest methods to encourage migration to digital radio broadcasting is by permitting the private broadcasters to choose the technology they want to adopt for radio broadcasting and make suitable modifications in the FM policy guidelines.

The policy guidelines for Phase III do not permit use of any digital technology. Most FM broadcasters have migrated to Phase III guidelines. As on 31 March, 293 FM radio stations have been operational in 84 cities by 32 private FM radio broadcasters.

According to TRAI, digital broadcasting brings a number of benefits including increased choice and quality, ability to transmit more channels or services for the same cost, enhanced coverage, better efficiency in spectrum use and transmission of messages combining text and images.

Analogue terrestrial radio has a number of limitations including poor reception quality due to radio frequency (RF) interference, ability to transmit only one channel per transmitter and spectral inefficiency as frequency reuse is limited. Analogue radio channels require more spectrum per channel.

Additionally, signal quality of analogue terrestrial radio may suffer in mobile environment such as moving vehicles and on handheld devices, and there is no flexibility to provide any value-added service (VAS).

In such a scenario, the regulator has recommended an appropriate framework including terms and conditions for such migration may need to be framed.

It further added that such modifications to the policy guidelines will be applicable not only to radio channels which will be auctioned in future but will also be applicable to FM radio channels presently in operation.

“The radio broadcaster depending on the business model and need will be free to start migration using the allocated frequency. Radio broadcasters will also have freedom for simultaneous broadcast in both formats FM and digital broadcasting,” TRAI has said in the consultation paper.

The regulator noted that a well-designed ecosystem and roadmap is necessary for smooth transition from analogue to digital broadcasting.

For digital radio to become successful, it is important to ensure adequate availability of digital radio receivers at affordable cost for listeners.

On the use of technology, TRAI has stated that digital radio broadcasting technologies can be deployed using two methods for transmission—in-band and out-of-band. In-band methods use the existing analogue frequency bands, while out-of-band methods use additional frequency bands.

In the in-band method, digital signal can be transmitted in the frequency gap which is the guard band between analogue FM signals. This will enhance the ease of implementation and facilitate simultaneous operation of both analogue and digital signal.

However, the authority noted that there is a restriction in data throughput and there could be interference problem because of coexistence with analogue FM broadcastings. Therefore, prior to the use of any digital technology interference, study may need to be carried out, it added.

According to TRAI, using the same digital technology for replacement of analogue FM broadcasting will help the existing radio broadcasters to sustain their revenue as users will not have to buy a separate receiver. Therefore, using a different technology is not a feasible option.

The other option, it said, could be the use of multi-standard receivers, in case different digital technology is adopted for replacement of FM broadcasting.

The regulator has also noted that digital radio can only become effective if digital radio receivers are available at affordable costs.

In order to ensure the proliferation of digital radio broadcasting, there is a need to have a clear decision on adoption of technology, long-term roadmap for migration to digital radio broadcasting, creation of core group to look into all issues and support development of ecosystem.

Summary of issues for consultation:

  1. Is there a need to encourage or facilitate introduction of digital radio transmission at present? If so, what measures do you suggest and in which market?
  2. Is there a need to frame a roadmap for migration to digital radio broadcasting for private FM broadcasters? If yes, which approach, mentioned in para 4.7, should be adopted? Please give your suggestions with justification.
  3. Should the date for digital switch-over for radio broadcasting in India need to be declared? If yes, please suggest the date with suitable justification. If no, please give reason to support your view.
  4. Is the present licensing framework or regulatory framework restrictive for migration to digital radio broadcasting? Please explain with justification.
  5. Should single digital radio technology be adopted for entire country or choice of technology should be left to radio broadcasters? Support your reply with justification.
  6. In case a single digital radio broadcast technology is to be adopted for the entire country, which technology should be adopted for private FM radio broadcasting? Please give your suggestions with detailed justification.
  7. How issues of interference and allocation of appropriate spectrum can be settled in case the option to choose technology is left to radio broadcasters?
  8. Should the permission for operating FM channel be delinked from technology used for radio broadcasting? If yes, please provide a detailed framework with justification.
  9. Should the existing operational FM radio channels be permitted to migrate to digital broadcasting within assigned radio frequency? If yes, should there be any additional charges as number of available channels in digital broadcasting will increase? Please provide a detailed framework for migration with justification.
  10. Should the future auction of remaining FM channels of Phase III be done delinking it from technology adopted for radio broadcasting? Please give your suggestions with detailed justification.
  11. In case future auction of remaining FM channels of Phase III is done delinking it from technology, should the present auction process be continued? If no, what should be the alternative auction process? Please give your suggestions with detailed justification.
  12. What modifications need to be done in FM radio policy to use allocated FM radio channels in technology neutral manner for radio broadcasting?
  13. What measures should be taken to reduce the prices of digital radio receivers and develop an ecosystem for migration to digital radio broadcasting?