TRAI encourages Digital Radio, private operators raise concerns

TRAI holds open house discussion on issues related to digital radio broadcast in India, radio operators say that the plan is a failure, not going to take off

by Nishant Saxena
Published - Oct 31, 2017 8:44 AM Updated: Oct 31, 2017 8:44 AM

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), on October 25, organised an open house discussion, in Delhi, to seek responses from stakeholders on the issues related to digital radio broadcasting in India. TRAI, which has taken a suo motu decision to take up the cause of digital radio broadcasting, in its consultation paper, suggests that there is an overwhelming need in India to transform from analogue to digital radio broadcasting, however, private radio operators seem to have a divided opinion.

Although private FM radio operators show no or little initiative for the transformation, it should be noted; All India Radio has been proactive in the implementation of digital radio in MW (medium wave) and SW (shortwave) bands using DRM standard.

To understand the position of private radio operators, exchange4media reached out to private radio players separately and received insightful responses which  TRAI struggled to address in the consultation paper.

Private radio operators Vs TRAI

As opposed to the TRAI view, Amitabh Kumar, Corporate Director for Zee Network turned down the prospects of digitisation in radio broadcasting during the open house discussion organised by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

In response to TRAI’s consultation paper Kumar said, “The time is not right. Although, we don’t oppose the introduction of digitisation in radio broadcasting it will not be commercially viable.”

In its submission to TRAI’s consultation paper, Zee points out that most of the phones (over 600 million smartphones and feature phones) in India have FM receivers built in, “which is a prime driver of their usage.” And it was brought to the attention how Internet Protocol (IP) based radio stations are available at virtually no cost.

Having a similar viewpoint, Vineet Singh Hukmani, MD & CEO, Radio One told Exchange4Media, “Digital Radio Broadcast will be a flop show. It doesn’t matter even if all players want it.” “Would consumers buy and carry another device when they get every service on their smartphones using the internet?” he further asked.
Interestingly, Nisha Narayanan, COO, Red FM, although, feels that the initiative by TRAI is “a progressive one and the biggest driver for broadcast media is technological advancement.” Even she points out that “the main impediment to this is the accessibility of digital audio receiver” and adds, “The online streaming option should also be included in the ambit of going digital.”


Mandatory or Voluntary?

The one issue where all private players are strongly united is that even after major apprehensions if the government still wants a switchover to digital, the transformation should be voluntary and not mandatory at any point in time.

“There is no proposal to mandate digitisation in this space as of now,” RS Sharma, Chairman, TRAI, clarified to the stakeholders during the discussion. Also, if TRAI attempts to make it mandatory it will be a huge burden on the audience to buy another digital device. It is important to note that to access digital radio through DRM, which the government is apparently encouraging, a listener needs a receiver set that can cost up to Rs 16,000.

As pointed out by Hukmani, “PM’s idea of digital India is for everyone and not for 2-3% of the population.”
However, on the other hand, a listener already has access to the internet on smartphones, at all time low data pack rates, which can be used for audio/video streaming services. “It will be commercially viable once the issue of assessing to end consumer is resolved,” said Narayanan.

Despite drawbacks DRM pitches its case

Further, during the discussion, Yogendra Pal, Chairman, DRM Consortium, India, promoted the use of DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) technology for Digital Radio.

“For DRM merely an application in smartphones would be required to enable digital radio,” claimed Pal. However, Kumar, countered Pal’s claim saying that digital technologies are not yet mature enough to be incorporated in smartphones as they drain too much power.

More content generation including news

Demanding permission for more content generation and expansion of the genres, Uday Chawla, Secretary General, Association of Radio Operators for India said, “Private Radio operators should be allowed to present news and current affairs,” further adding that the political environment in India was not supportive and policy infrastructure was required for the transformation to digital without harming the operations of those running on analogue.
At present, the government restricts FM channels to broadcast news and only allows carrying All India Radio news bulletins in exactly the same format.

In the end from the beginning

From the very beginning, the one thought that seems to be troubling the radio operators is what’s pushing TRAI so much to go digital and ignore the dominance of internet and its power to penetrate being very cost effective.
In the end, the united voice of radio operators asks TRAI the point of all the investments and transformation when the audience is not even interested to burden itself with the switch over and already has better, cost-effective methods to opt for.

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