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After DTT, TRAI launches exercise on digital radio broadcasting

NEW DELHI: Even as it noted that All-India Radio is active in implementation of digital radio in MW and SW bands, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has noted that there appears to be no initiative in FM radio space either by public or private FM radio broadcasters.

Since FM is primarily used for analogue transmission, it appears as if the frequency allocations under these policy guidelines are only for analogue transmission. Analogue FM technology can provide only one channel per frequency. Therefore, existing FM radio channels provide limited services to their listeners. In addition, analogue radio broadcasting is facing competition from emerging technologies and other platforms like webcasting, podcasting and internet streaming etc.

In view of this, the TRAI has suo moto issued a consultation paper on Issues related to digital radio broadcasting in India. Stakeholders have been asked to respond to the various questions raised by TRAI by 4 September with counter-comments if any by 18 September 2017.

Late last year, TRAI had commenced a similar exercise in digital terrestrial television. Interestingly, both DTT and digital radio broadcasting have been the domain so far of the pubcaster Prasar Bharati.

At the outset, TRAI has noted that radio is a prevalent source for providing entertainment, information and education to the masses due to its wide coverage, portability, low set-up cost and affordability.

At present, terrestrial radio coverage in India is available in Frequency Modulation (FM) mode and Amplitude Modulation (AM) mode (Short Wave and Medium Wave). All India Radio (AIR) along with private sector radio broadcasters are providing terrestrial radio broadcast services throughout the country transmitting programs in AM and FM frequency bands.

AIR has 420 radio stations (AM & FM) that cover almost 92 per cent of the country by area and more than 99.20% of the country’s population. Private sector radio broadcasters transmit programmes in FM mode only and presently operate through 293 radio stations. Private sector radio broadcasters are licensed to operate in FM frequency band (88-108 MHz).

In Phase-I of FM Radio, the government auctioned 108 FM radio channels in 40 cities. Out of these, only 21 FM radio channels became operational and subsequently migrated to Phase-II in 2005. Phase-II of FM Radio commenced in 2005 when a total of 337 channels were put on bid across 91 cities having population equal to or more than 300,000. Of 337 channels, 222 channels became operational. At the end of Phase-II, 243 FM Radio channels were operational in 86 cities.

In Phase-III expansion of FM radio, 966 FM radio channels are to be made available in 333 cities. In the first batch of Phase-III, 135 private FM Radio channels in 69 cities were auctioned in 2015. Out of these, 96 FM Radio channels in 55 cities have been successfully auctioned.

In the second batch of Phase-III, 266 private FM Radio channels in 92 cities were auctioned in 20162. Out of these, 66 FM Radio channels in 48 cities have been successfully auctioned3. As on 31st March 2017, 293 FM radio stations have been made operational in 84 cities by 32 private FM Radio broadcasters.

In order to encourage radio broadcasting for the specific sections of society, the government has allowed setting up of Community Radio Stations (CRS). CRS typically broadcast in FM band with low power transmitters restricting its coverage to the local community within approx 10 KM. There are 206 operational CRS at present.

Radio signals on FM are presently transmitted in analogue mode in the country. Analogue terrestrial radio broadcasting when compared with digital mode is inefficient and suffers with operational restrictions as discussed below:

Transmission in analogue mode is susceptible to Radio Frequency (RF) interference resulting in poorer reception quality.

Only one channel per transmitter is possible.

Spectrally inefficient as frequency reuse is limited and radio channels require more spectrum per channel.

Signal quality may suffer in portable environment such as moving vehicles and on handheld devices.

No flexibility to provide any Value Added Service

Digital radio broadcasting has existed since quiet sometime around the world. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recommendations have described four major standards for broadcast of digital radio which are DAB, ISDB-TSB, HD Radio and DRM.

Countries around the world are moving towards digital radio broadcasting by drawing the roadmap for switchover to digitisation broadcasting on the selected digital radio broadcasting standard.

In keeping with the pace of deployment of digital radio around the globe, the government in 2010 took a decisive step forward for transition from analogue radio services of AIR to digital mode of transmission. AIR conducted rigorous trials over the years and adopted the Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) standard for low frequency band (MW and SW). It has initiated digitization of its MW and SW radio network in three phases. It has recently concluded phase-I of digitisation of its network with deployment of 37 digital (DRM) transmitters throughout the country, which are now operational and is now in the process of launching phase-II of the DRM project by offering full features/services from these DRM transmitters and further improving service quality. In phase-III, AIR, will complete transition of its radio services to the digital DRM platform, further improving the number and quality of radio services and extra features for the listeners, while also saving large amounts of transmission power every year.

According to Policy Guidelines for Phase-III expansion of FM Radio broadcasting services through private agencies of 25 July 2011 issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, the maximum number of FM radio channels permitted in Category A+, Category A, Category B, Category C and Category D including ‘Others’ cities are 9, 6, 4, 4 and 3, respectively.

The questions posed by TRAI are:
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?

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.

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.

Is present licensing framework or regulatory framework is restrictive for migration to digital radio broadcasting? Please explain with justification.

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.

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.

How issues of interference and allocation of appropriate spectrum allocation can be settled in case the option to choose technology is left to radio broadcasters?

Should the permission for operating FM channel be delinked from technology used for radio broadcasting? If yes, please provide a detailed framework with justification.

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.

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.

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 alternate auction process? Please give your suggestions with detailed justification.

What modifications need to be done in FM radio policy to use allocated FM radio channels in technology neutral manner for radio broadcasting?

What measures should be taken to reduce the prices of digital radio receivers and develop ecosystem for migration to digital radio broadcasting?

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