Ministers panel may vet Trais FM-III suggestions

Written by Ashish Sinha | New Delhi | Updated: May 7 2012, 05:50am hrs
To take up issue of additional channels in existing & new towns

To steer clear of any future legal implications and ensure transparency, an empowered group of ministers (EGoM) may soon take up the issues of additional spectrum availability and additional FM radio channels in existing as well as new towns, identified for the third-phase of FM radio expansion (FM-III).

The information & broadcasting (I&B) ministry has sought the setting up of a separate EGoM for FM-III to consider the recent recommendations issued by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) which have left private FM broadcasters divided.

This comes at a time when issues related to 2G spectrum in the telecom sector are already before an EGoM, headed by the finance minister.

Last week, Trai batted for reducing the channel spacing between adjacent FM stations from the current 800 Kilo Hertz (KHz) to 400 KHz, thereby virtually doubling the number of FM stations in each of the 280 towns identified for FM-III.

These recommendations came despite opposition from some of the leading FM radio brands, such as Radio City, Red FM, Radio One and Fever, among others. However, Radio Mirchi and Big FM have supported the Trai recommendations. Those opposing the recommendations have cited cost escalation, devaluation of current radio business, delay in FM-III rollout and negative impact on the quality of sound of current stations as the reasons. In our opinion, an EGoM will be the fastest way to sort out issues arising from the Trai recommendations. We have requested a dedicated EGoM in the matter, a senior government official handling the matter told FE.

However, Trais recommendations virtually mean re-working of the frequency allocation plan for FM radio within the 88-108 Mhz bandwidth. Trai calls for reducing the channel-spacing between two allocated FM stations by half. The implication is simple: Say, currently, between 100 MHz and 103 MHz, there can only be four FM stations at 100 MHz, 100.8 MHz, 101.6 MHz and 102.4 MHz. By reducing the spacing to 400 KHz, the number of FM stations will go up to eight as after 100 MHz, the next station will be at 100.4 MHz, 100.8 MHz, and so on.

The mandate of the proposed eGoM will be to decide on whether to incorporate Trai's recommendations and club the additional FM slots with already identified FM-III stations (839 FM stations proposed across 280 towns). Also, the eGoM will decide on the fallout of the Trai recommendations on the existing FM radio players. There are a couple of views on the new stations that will come up as a result of reduced channel spacing. One option is to incorporate the Trai recommendations with the existing stations, at least in the metros and bigger towns, and auction them altogether. Another view is to set aside the Trai recommendations for the time and club them with any vacant stations of FM-III and auction them together in, say, the fourth phase. All these issues will be put before the eGoM when it is constituted," said the official.

Entertainment Network (India), the company that runs Radio Mirchi, has been supporting the move ever since its was put up for consultation. Prashant Panday, CEO, ENIL, said: "With more channels being made available, there will be much more programming content available. By making more efficient usage of scarce spectrum, the government will be able to monetise this key national resource much better. If the government can auction an additional nine channels in the A+ and A towns, the licence fees the government earns will also be enormous."