Size matters

Not long ago, the nation of India decided it was mature enough to allow people to communicate with each other, even poor people (of which there are, as it happens, still a few). Not just talking, which is more or less a habit, but using high quality electronic telecommunications, of which the very cheapest is FM (frequency modulated radio broadcasting, using the medium wave band).

FM broadcasting, being roughly medium wave transmission, works in line-of-sight principally, which means that signal attenuationĀ  with a host of interfering material objects, such as trees and houses, is brutal on the one hand, and that the horizon is the effective limit, on the other. Stray signals will occasionally travel much further than that, but not very reliably.

More power will cause a better signal at longer distances, but not much. The marginal increase of cost with power is exponential, directly opposite to the marginal increase in reach. Given these constraints, it becomes obvious that the greatest efficiency for a poor community comes from very low powered transmitter stations. I have enthusiastically discussed this at great and wordy length in another blogpost here. Our own work, at Radiophony, indicates that such stations may be as small as a square kilometer in reach, for such a throwaway cost, that to actively prevent such stations flourishing is in itself a travesty of freedom.

But I digress.

The announcement, at the dawn of 2003, brought about a great degree of excitement, as the numbers of radio stations possible were, according to the government, as high as 4,000. Subsequent announcements made it clear this number was being thought of as a preliminary target, something that might be achieved in a couple of years or so.

Nowadays, six years down the line, figures for the upper limits on Indian community radio stations are bandied about in public places, even by persons who have worked hard to gain international recognition in the world of community radio. Just recently, a senior officebearer of the Asia-Pacific focus group within AMARC, which is the French acronymed-name of the world association of community radio broadcasters, said he hoped the Indian government would find ways to put support in place, so that the potential target for 5,000 stations of 50 Watt capacity each, which he characterised as ‘the potential for the broadcast spectrum in the country’, could be met.

To some eyes, it may certainly look like an ambitious target, especially considering the number of stations licensed under the Community Radio Policy have barely topped 50 so far (54, in September of 2009).

Yet.

How meaningful is this figure, in terms of using a ‘limited’ spectrum capacity? The total bandwidth, by international agreement, is just about 20 MHz, while the technology permits broadcasting at neighboring frequencies with not less than 200 KHz separation. One of the most dense FM regions in the world in the city of New York in the US, which hosts around 72 working stations.

Still, we don’t need to go across the world, to find out what people are doing with the spectrum. Look at Thailand: a land area (discounting water bodies etc) of 511,771 sq km, and population of about 65 million. Well over 2,000 stations (wikipedia) broadcast currently, down from an estimated 3,000 a couple of years back, in the teeth of active restrictions, due to policy disputes at the highest levels of government. Put in simple terms, it amounts to one community station per 250 sq km, or 0ne station per 32,500 people (ie, considering all the people in the country, not just the ones within listening distance).

India, on the other hand, has a land area of 2,973,190 sq km, and a population of around 1,170 million, counting projections of around July of 2009. The target of 5,000 stations thus amounts to barely one station per 600 sq km, or one station per 234,000 people. Not quite reaching for the sky, is it?

Several years ago, on the email list popularly used between supporters of community radio, I worked out the estimated potential capacity of low power broadcast radio in India. The true FM capacity of the country worked out to over 900,000 stations of ~5W*, reaching a pragmatic zone of about 5 km in dia each, to adjust for 50W stations, which will reach a zone of about ~25 km in dia. This is 25 times the effective area of reach of 5W stations, hence we must cut down the total to 1/25th, or 4%.

That is still 36,000 stations, give or take a few hundreds.

My working out this calculation does not imply that I am in favour of 50W stations per se, and I will get back to this point below.

[*I had originally assumed about 100 channels per fixed area, resulting in 1.25 million stations for the country, but after discussions with practiced US broadcasters, reduced this number to 72. Accordingly the 1.25 million got cut down by 25%, about which I had subsequently posted to the list].

This willingness by the ‘haves’ of our country to accept lower targets of accomplishment devils just about every single reasonable attempt being made in the country to get the ordinary people, the disenfranchised and exploited, the most basic chance to pull themselves together to reach the very basement level of empowerment: a voice. Put this together with the divisiveness between commercial and non-commercial, and educational and ‘broader’ purpose objectives, and the situation in FM gets quite vitiated.

Plain vanilla economic arguments towards the division of use of spectrum give, in effect, more to the ‘haves’ in terms of super-powerful transmission capacities (for a price, but meeting the price is much easier for them). Unfortunately, this cruelly cuts down the options for those in more straitened circumstances, because powerful radio stations invariably drown out, or ‘interfere’, with signals from lower powered stations in the vicinity.

Much worse, it effectively reduces every need in the country to an economic need, and transforming the government’s main purpose from governance to revenue collection. What a travesty!

While I do not have anything against some stations being more powerful, for those few places in the country that have low population density in high-foliage (or other high-attenuation contributory factors) geographies, to take it as the norm is simply a waste of a fantastic resource, simply because it is there.

What is quite depressing, vis-a-vis the quality of discussion in many fora, including the one specifically set up to share concerns and support between community radio enthusiasts, is the sniping that keeps cropping up between supporters of ‘educational’ and ‘community’ broadcasting, as practices. This is a prime example of the confusion that hierarchical governmental systems tend to foster, in order to cling on to their implicit or de facto autarchy, which has no place in a democratic civilisation. Apparently, democratic civilisation is our national choice, as recent arrests (on the grounds of sedition, or espousing sedition) of intellectuals who favour other approaches show.

This situation was brought about by simply placing limits on technologies, by ascribing different price points to the radiated power. In other markets (the 3G auctions that keep getting postponed, even though vastly superior 4G telephony technology is now nearly ready to become commercially available, and the fact that GSM technology in and of itself does not need to be purveyed or deployed by national-sized megacompanies), the allocation of parcels of frequency is the market-shaping determinant, rather than sheer broadcast power.

On the list, the discussions haven’t even begun to question the government’s fiat accompli of allocating some FM frequencies to some organisations at the national level. Nobody seems interested in questioning why commercial stations are allowed 1. tsunami transmitters that drown out all less expensive options in the vicinity and 2. fixed frequencies across the country.

What does a fixed frequency deliver, in terms of value propositions? The ability to create a brand around a frequency? How many of these commercial chains still rely on frequency branding to promote their channels, and how is it in the nation’s interest to lower their costs of advertising in national newspapers and other media? Of course, it does not affect the cost of advertising in local media. I really don’t know why the private sector companies played along with the government, when the terms of frequency allocation became to shape up, earlier this decade. Anyway, they seem to be stuck with that foolishness.

What does opening up the spectrum to low power transmission do for the country, and its people?

A brief list:

  1. Allow small groups or communities of people to express themselves through an inexpensive technology, providing them with their own choices of entertainment and useful information.
  2. Empower such small groups with the management and creative expertise needed to meet the needs of their own special listener groups, without forcing them to install a complete educational framework before getting started (international readers of this blog may be surprised to know how pathetically incomplete the education sector coverage remains, never mind the more specialised learning environments that include management and creativity).
  3. Regularise the use of FM spectrum for a host of occasional, local and community-oriented activities, such as local music performances, simultaneous multiple language translation of non-local language content by external speakers, public speeches in general, religious gatherings and so on. Such applications are often employed in India, although it is illegal here, apparently (the rules are not clear), but they are permitted in many countries around the world, often for nominal fees.

At present, such commonsense, inexpensive and inoffensive usage of spectrum is either proscribed or discouraged, for reasons that remain undebated in public fora, for the simple reason that the agenda at such fora is often set by the current controllers of spectrum (ie, the government). While representations at such fora have been made several times, it does not seem to be recorded in any responsible form by the government itself.

The FM band remains tightly in the control of the government and the revenue generating private sector, with applications for the common good either poorly served, or not at all. It is truly unfortunate that this situation now finds endorsement from representatives of community media.

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Filed under Accessibility, Broadcast, Communication, Community, Democracy, development, Media, Narrowcast, Radio, Security, Self-help

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