In a consultation paper on community radio, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has stressed the need for a simplified licensing process to energise the sector. The paper, which was issued on Wednesday, points out that 20 months after the community radio policy was announced, there’s just one licensee in the country. Complex licensing procedure is understood to be a hurdle for several potential players. The current process involves seeking clearances from at least six ministries/departments.
The policy was announced in December 2002 and the Anna University of Chennai is the only institution so far to have a community radio station. According to the Trai paper, 55 applications were made, but only 12 have been issued letters of intent till date.
Besides its focus on the licensing process, Trai has sought industry views on the eligibility criteria, funding, programming code, scope for news and current affairs, advertising, regulation and even foreign investment.
At present, only educational institutions are permitted to have community radio stations. Community co-operatives, local self-help groups, NGOs, social organisations, trade unions, associations and other non-commercial groups are barred from getting into the area. But, Trai says that since the concept of community radio stations is in a nascent stage, “eligibility criteria should therefore not be overly exclusive”.
While listing the issues for consultation, Trai talks about the option of temporary permits, an independent licensing body, doing away with bank guarantee and licensing framework in community radio in sync with the parameters of commercial FM radio service.
The paper weighs the pros and cons of government grants, commercial advertising and foreign donors being a part of community radio. It also talks of sops to players — whether spectrum use fee should be charged and if customs duty relaxation should be given for importing equipment.
It seeks industry comments on whether there should be a separate programme code for community radio. Another significant point that it raises is that of news and current affairs. Right now, news and current affairs is the monopoly of All India Radio. Both private FM and community radio are not allowed to carry news. The Trai paper wants a dialogue on permitting news in community radio.
Foreign models have been discussed at length in the consultation paper.
To put things in perspective, in India, licence for community radio is granted for three years and there’s no licence fee. But, a player must pay a bank guarantee worth Rs 50,000. In addition, there’s a spectrum usage fee to be determined by the communications ministry. It is estimated that the initial cost of setting up a community radio station is around Rs 10-12 lakh. Plus, there’s an annual cost of running the operation.