ICASA takes community broadcasting on review

March 13th, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT

 

Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has announced that it will take community broadcasting, both radio and television, under review. In a Government Gazette (40660) published on 3 March 2017, the authority gave notice that in accordance with the ICASA Act 13 of 2000.

Community broadcasting services were formalised in 1994 when the Independent Broadcasting Authority (ABA), a forerunner of ICASA, issued one-year licences. There were several amendments to the regulations in 1996 and 2006. With the promulgation of the Electronic Communication Act (ECA), a simpler class licensing process was introduced. The framework for Community TV was separately developed and came into effect in 2004.

The purpose of the discussion document is to facilitate participation by stakeholders. In this context, ICASA is seeking input on the following policy related issues:

  • The scope/definition of community broadcasting services.
  • The funding and operational models for broadcasting services.
  • Capacity building and institutional support for community broadcasting services.

There are currently 280 community broadcasting services, 275 community radio and five community TV stations and it is estimated that there are 31 radio stations that only broadcast on the internet.

One of the issues that community broadcast stations grapple with is low or lack of advertising revenue. According to AC Nielsen Adex, community radio receives only 1,9% of the ad spend on radio while commercial radio receives the balance. Research has also shown that 25% of South African adults listen to community radio. The advertising spend is clearly disproportional.

The current regulations are very specific about the ownership of community stations and coverage area. Some of the conditions include that ownership can be by the community and governed by a board of directors. ICASA said that a number of stakeholders interviewed were of the opinion that ICASA should consider expanding the coverage area to increase the audience base and as a result attract more advertising. The authority suggested that expanding the stations’ footprint could have an unintended consequence of increasing transmission costs and might not yield the anticipated audience figures. Therefore suggestions of expanding stations’ coverage should be balanced against the transmission costs and wider impact they could have on other broadcasters.

The current community broadcasting licensing framework makes provision for a geographic-based community of interest based stations. There are indications based on stakeholder interviews that ICASA might need to develop different rules for the respective sectors. There is also an opinion that regulations are too stringent and did not account for nuances of community interest stations – campus radio stations are good examples of this. Community television initially operated on the basis of events licences. From a legislative perspective community TV shares similar traits to community radio.

Technical capability and the cost of signal distribution (broadcasts) are more inhibitors for community broadcasting stations. Currently, most stations are outsourcing technical competencies and rely on the Department of Communication subsidy to cover the signal distribution costs.

The discussion document provides great insight into the world of community broadcasting and makes interesting reading but one cannot help but ask the question of why we want to regulate community broadcasting so strictly. It is understood that there needs to be some regulations to ensure that programming is within the framework of the South Africa constitution.

The questions of limited frequency availability can to a large extent be solved by accepting a more modern broadcasting standard such as DRM or DAB+ which make many more channels available. Both systems have been researched and tested by Sentech. With DRM, the use of medium- and shortwave will open up new radio channels. Each DRM channel can carry three radio programmes and one data channel that requires narrow bandwidth of less than 5 kHz. Another advantage is that the system is more energy efficient.

Is now not the time for the Department of Communications to make a decision in which direction South Africa should be moving?

The discussion document also does deals with the funding question as well as questions of whether government should set up a separate fund to finance, or at least subsidise community stations. Having said that, such a scheme could undermine the independence of community radio stations and subject them to government interference.

With all the controversy about the South African Broadcasting Corporation, should South Africa not be looking at other models like the US’s National Public Radio (NPR)? The NPR is a mission-driven, multimedia news organisation and radio programme producer. It is a network with a strong base of member stations and supporters nationwide. NPR is also the leading membership and representation organisation for public radio in the US.

The closing date to make share your views on the document is 10 May 2017. Download the document here.

Send your comments to engineerit@ee.co.za

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