A Digital Radio Roadmap For India
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recently wrote to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting in reply to an earlier communication regarding digital radio and further auctions for FM radio licenses in India. While addressing the issue of technology, the TRAI advised leaving the choice to the licensee to decide whether to adopt analog or digital radio. While the government is to decide on the next phase of auctions for FM radio expansion in India, a research report was also released recently on digital broadcast radio in India by E&Y and the India Cellular and Electronics Association, an industry body of Indian cellular manufacturers. As India mulls, further expansion of FM radio the two developments have brought to the centre-stage the future technology evolution for radio in India.
Since 2014, radio in India has had a rebirth of sorts with Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching his monthly radio show Mann ki Baat. While being carried primarily across the network of All India Radio, Mann ki Baat is the most widely syndicated radio show in India with a video version that is carried by as many as 120 television channels apart from live-streaming across applications and platforms. It is also the only radio show that is simulcast in more than 20 languages and dialects. Mann ki Baat’s success beyond radio in many ways points to the changes in the broadcast and media landscape that radio as a medium has had to contend with. Despite the fast-changing technology landscape listening, however, continues to occupy an important place in media consumption by audiences across demographics.
Shedding Legacy Baggage
Listening through conventional broadcasting is at a distinct disadvantage to listening through apps and devices. Not being a measurable medium, conventional radio does not enjoy the same degree of attraction for advertisers as television or internet-based listening do. Conventional radio broadcasting also has a form factor issue with Medium Wave and Short Wave being unsuitable for listening through mobile devices. In fact, the untold story of Medium Wave and Shortwave Radio is not just the lack of a modern receiver base but the vast amount of expensive resources that go into operating them, spectrum being the least. With several hundred acres of land locked up to maintain the transmitter fields for Medium Wave and Shortwave Radio, and several crores of expenditure on electricity to keep these transmitters radiating, these obsolete modes of radio broadcasting are contributing to a sizeable portion of the more than Rs 200 crore of operating deficit of All India Radio.
Barring a handful of foreign language services that need to be sustained for strategic reasons there is no continued justification for operating the rest of the SW/MW analog radio transmitters in India.
It would be in both public and national interest to phase them out to ensure valuable public resources are conserved for future technology evolution.
Conventional FM radio on the other hand continues to enjoy a sizable base across India with both in-vehicle listening and smartphone-based listening. The FM penetration in India however is yet to reach the 80% threshold in terms of population with several population centers being unserved or underserved. While DD Freedish DTH offers a sizeable number of satellite radio channels, the lack of mobility of DTH receivers limits their usage in these uncovered areas. Further expansion of FM coverage, either by the public broadcaster under the BIND scheme leveraging grants from the government, or by the private broadcasters through new licenses, faces a significant investment conundrum.
With these unfavourable economics, it is debatable if private broadcasters will make the switch to digital FM radio as speculated by TRAI in its reply to MIB. Any kind of nationwide shift to digital FM radio will require seeding the market with receivers specific to one of the multiple digital FM radio standards highlighted in the E&Y ICEA report to achieve economies of scale.
Go Digital Through Convergence
This raises the question if a country such as India which is at the cusp of universalising 4G infrastructure, expanding rural broadband and rolling out 5G soon, should be investing any more in silos of infrastructure that require parallel setups, locking in manpower and real estate resources of both the public broadcaster and private media and also require mass scale adoption of proprietary hardware by consumers.
One would have expected thought leadership by TRAI in its advice to the government envisioning a converged future where broadcasting and broadband cohabit converged infrastructure and are received by consumers through common devices and interfaces. The E&Y ICEA report while hinting in this direction by calling for video broadcast as well, stops short of spelling out a clear convergence roadmap.
While the current install base of conventional FM radio transmitters will likely continue for the foreseeable future with some expansion to economically viable cities and towns, it is time for India to start laying the foundation for common and converged content independent broadcasting.
Innovative gateway solutions such as those developed by C-DOT bridging DTH satellite Radio and Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting with local Wi-Fi hotspots can enable an interim step towards this convergence at a low cost and shorter time to market.
The future of radio in India requires innovative and out-of-the-box interventions with convergence in thinking across the regulator and the two administrative Ministries of Telecom and Broadcasting. It is time for India to lead the way in the world with a convergent roadmap rather than play catch-up by investing in expensive and soon-to-be obsolete proprietary digital radio technologies. The future of listening lies beyond conventional radio in content independent broadcasting as has been demonstrated by the extraordinary success of Prime Minister Modi’s Mann ki Baat across formats, modes and languages.
Shashi Shekhar Vempati is former Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati, and a veteran information technology and media executive.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.