News - TRI

TRI recommends halving channel spacing for FM radio Move May Lead To 'Efficient Utilisation Of Scarce Spectrum'


New Delhi: In a move that will increase the number of FM radio channels in the country, content variety and business viability, Trai has recommended that the minimum channel spacing between FM radio frequencies can be halved to 400 KHz within a licence service area.

When implemented, it will immediately double the number of FM channels in each major market in the country and naturally the variety of content. With more channels available for auctions, the government will also be in a position to make more licence fees through auctions. In its recommendations, Trai has stated that FM channels operating with channel spacing of 400 KHz should be radiated from effectively co-located sites and transmitted with equal power. The co-location of transmitters had already been previously recommended by Trai. It stated that reducing the minimum channel spacing would lead to "the efficient utilisation of the scarce resource of spectrum" apart from generating additional revenue for the government, buttressing its point by the fact that a minimum channel spacing of 400 KHz (or even less in some cases) is the benchmark in many countries including the UK, Singapore, US, etc.

Industry sources said the recommendation ought to be implemented in Phase III policy rollout — which plans to extend FM radio's reach to 294 cities, thereby meeting the government's target of covering 85% of the country — so as to enable its success. The move is especially necessary to enable the release of more frequencies in A+ and A category cities, they added. Radio operators had told Trai that unless more channels are allowed by way of reduction in channel spacing, the auction for channels in Phase III would not be rational and would likely result in unrealistically very high channel prices. Since highest price in the auction/bidding process is generally taken as the reference price for future auctions, this will have a perpetual aberration effect. The operators had added that this was all the more necessary, because in the new Phase III policy, a single entity could have more than one channel in a licence area and the cost of making an incremental channel operational being substantially low, the viability of additional channels would be much better. Moreover, this would significantly help content plurality as the introduction of more channels in the "A+" and "A" cities would allow operators to offer a variety of content which will not only be popular with listeners, but would also increase the penetration of FM radio in different markets and thereby advertisement revenue — the only source of revenue for the FM industry. In fact, more channels might lead to market fragmentation, but more importantly, expanded market size, Trai stated, adding that the "experience of the radio industry in India as well as abroad suggests that the radio sector has grown when the channels in a licence area have been increased". Radio operators had also pointed out to Trai that reducing channel spacing was long overdue because significant technological developments had taken place since 2008 when the current 800 KHz norm was made. With more than 100% mobile phone penetration in the urban markets, it is technologically possible to receive FM stations separated by just 400 Khz. Cities like Singapore, London, NY and even Colombo have more than 25-40 stations operating. Hopefully soon, Mumbai, Delhi and other metros will also be able to boast of the same number of stations. Removing any concerns on the viability of the business, Trai's recommendation emphasised that the issue of minimum channel spacing may not be linked to viability as the minimum channel spacing and the number of frequencies to be put up for auctions may be two different de-linked decisions. "Allocating thechannels with minimum channel spacing of 400 KHz would lead to efficient utilisation of the scarce resource of spectrum, and depending upon the viability of the introduction of more channels in the city, appropriate number of frequencies can be put to use for FM operations at appropriate points of time," it stated. In any case, it added that in Phase III, up to 2 additional channels are being introduced in 67 cities, including in three "A+" and nine Category "A" cities, hence "irrespective of reduction in channel spacing, additional channels are in any case, planned to be introduced in the existing markets", it added. Trai also rubbished the argument that reducing channel spacing would mean re-allocation of frequencies. "Reduction in channel spacing from 800 to 400 KHz is not likely to lead to such a situation. However, if need be, on case to case basis, the government may take precaution, while allocating frequencies with channel spacing of 400 KHz, to allocate only those additional frequencies which do not require any such reallocation of the frequency of the existing FM operators", it said.