Governments can be an unthinking barrier to the productive (and imaginative) use of communication resources. Radio frequencies exist, but the government decides to regulate their use. Fair enough, except that in India it has meant that the government simply bans their use. For more than six decades it has been illegal to utilise these frequencies because of a pre-independence law that is yet to be scrapped. A few years ago wanting to raise funds for its coffers, the ministry of information and broadcasting decided to license some FM (frequency modulated) frequencies, charging license fees so prohibitive that out of 108 who were licensed, 86 never actually went on air. Now it wants to license another 200 frequencies in some 80 towns, and is trying to decide how to avoid a fiasco recurring.

Think of what radio could mean in a country like India with its polyglot culture and languages. Think of what it could mean in a country where a fair number of millions are still not literate but have information and entertainment needs in their own languages and dialects. Technology making radio transmission cheap and easily available. Yet an unthinking bureaucracy has nightmares at the thought of a radio revolution. Recently the minister of state for information and broadcasting again reiterated that there is good reason why community radio needs clearances from five ministries and one department. We have insurgency in this country, he said.

The 80 frequencies that All India Radio’s local stations take up are grossly underutilised: they are only able to generate three to four hours of programming a day.
Indeed we do. So does neighbouring Nepal which continues to allow community radio. So does Sri Lanka. We have not put a ban on print, television or Internet as a result. So why on this low cost, accessible medium? Commercial FM is opening up because government feels safe with private sector radio. It scrutinises those licensees much less than universities which are now allowed to apply for radio licences. But both commercial and non-commercial radio are being opened up extremely cautiously if you were to look at the wealth of existing radio spectrum.

We should not let the government fool us into believing that sufficient frequencies are not available. Check out the National Frequency Allocation Table drawn up by Wireless Planning & Coordination Wing, of the Department of Telecom, and here is what you will find. Frequencies from 88 MHz to 108 MHz are available for broadcasting, while frequencies in 88-100 MHz and 103.8 to 108 MHz are specifically identified for private FM broadcast.

For perfect reception, without any interference from other channels, a separation of 800 KHz is recommended between two radio channels in India (though many countries maintain frequency separations that are much lower. USA, according to the Federal Communications Commission Frequency Allocation Table, permits a 200 KHz separation between allotted broadcast frequencies).

Even at the high degree separation of 800 KHz, at least 26 FM radio channels are possible in a single city, between 88 MHz and 108 MHz. Since an average FM station (20 KW) covers a radius of may be 50 kilometres, these frequencies can be repeated every 100 kilometres or so. In the frequency range allotted for private FM stations alone, 22 radio channels are possible with an 800 KHz separation. In other words, twenty times the number that the government is planning to license can be licensed. And the 80 frequencies that All India Radio’s local stations take up are grossly underutilised: they are only able to generate three to four hours of programming a day.

Who can use radio? Theoretically, agricultural universities, established non-governmental organisations, local self government bodies and cooperatives can all be permitted. In practice, those who can pay for commercial use are most likely to be trusted by this government.

By the end of this month a committee set up by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to determine the norms for the second round of FM radio privatisation has to submit its recommendations. Its terms of reference include determining a transparent and effective bidding /auction process, coming up with a viable licence fee structure for the various cities, deciding on whether there should be foreign equity participation in private FM, and looking at the legal implications of modifying the licensing regime of Phase-I licensees should a different licensing regime be proposed for phase-II.

The terms of reference of the task force do not include looking at incentives to be offered to non commercial agencies wanting to run public service, educational or community channels. Instead the committee has been asked to examine the possibility of having non-commercial, non-advertisement driven channels, "to be operated/licenced by the same commercial broadcasters; terms & conditions thereof." That is truly amazing.

Back in 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that the airwaves belong to the public, not the government. May be it is time for the Apex Court to sit up and take note of the fact that the government has been thumbing its nose at it all this while.