Written by Chris Grant

ICASA Moratorium on Applications

We look into the detail of the ICASA Moratorium on Community Radio License Applications

On 19 October 2015 (officially on 22 September 2015 in the Government Gazette however) – many of us involved in community radio in South Africa were shocked to hear that ICASA had placed a moratorium on License Applications for Community Radio through a press release to media titled “ICASA Issues a Notice of a Moratorium on Applications for Community Sound Broadcasting Service Licences and related Applications for Radio Frequency Spectrum”

We quickly forget that ICASA has issued a moratorium like this before, rewind to 29 August 2008.

What’s more, the reasoning behind the 2015 moratorium is actually quite solid. Let’s unpack it together:

Scarcity of analogue radio frequencies

When they said this, it made me think back to 2010 when we were working with an applicant who wanted to apply for a license in Gauteng. The popular response that ICASA would give you back then was “there simply aren’t any frequencies available” – since 2010 though, many new applicants have been granted licenses in areas that were “without available frequencies”

The fact of the matter though is that at this stage, at least in Gauteng, we sit with a situation where there really are no frequencies available. Whats more, there are numerous cases where licensees are clashing with one another. There are many reasons for this from “bad” or incorrect transmitter placement to topographical reasons. It makes me think that back in 2010, ICASA saw these problems coming.

I’d like to extrapolate and interpret, in my own opinion, why the word ANALOGUE has so much meaning in this reason for the moratorium. We all know that there was a worldwide, ITU driven, campaign for every country subscribing to them, to migrate to Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) broadcasting mechanisms. Often in the radio industry people think that FM is a part of that move. It certainly can be, but the small frequency space between 87.5 and 108 FM being regained would arguably be kind of useless to anyone for the hassle it would cause to a medium that was once said to have upwards of 97% penetration in the market.

Instead, I’d like to read between the lines that perhaps ICASA is saying to us that we need to start having the discussion of “WHAT NEXT FOR FM BROADCAST”

DAB(+) trials are busy being held in Gauteng by ICASA and Sentech and the last time I checked in, it was working very well.

Without getting into how DAB works, let me summarise for you:

  • More efficient use of frequency allocated to it
  • More “channels” available for broadcasters
    Depending on what system you use and how much spectrum is allocated to it, you’re looking at a minimum of double the amount of “channels” in the same space that Analogue FM broadcast yielded – I wont get into the exact calculations.
  • Ability to “go” where FM couldn’t before
    FM, while streets ahead of Analogue AM in audio quality, lacked AM’s (LW, MW, etc) ability to propagate and not be affected by terrain or buildings and such – YES, AM had some terrible pitfalls and cons in itself, but by and large it was better at propagation than what FM was
  • Clearer Sound
  • Ability to “self correct” itself when interference is detected by the receiver

DAB(+) is great. Another technology that is amazing is Satellite Radio (SDARS) but the question is, would a proprietary broadcast mechanism work for Africa?

I’m sure that it would. Southern Africa had a satellite radio service before but from what I recall, it failed due to lack of adoption mostly due to expensive receivers.
Could IP/Streaming be a contender? On one hand I’d like to think so, but on the other hand I can see the authorities getting involved to try and police or license the medium this which would clash with net neutrality at some level I’m sure.

The long and the short of it is… whether with Digital Terrestrial, Digital Satellite or IP based Radio Broadcast, it means consumers having to cough up for compatible receivers and this would inevitably lead to lower penetration rates in the future for a current technology that enjoys more penetration in Africa than anything else (including print and billboard advertising)
The current review of licensing processes and procedure regulations wherein the Authority intends to process registrations for community sound broadcasting services in two (2) intervals per year

Again, this is a fair reason for the moratorium. It gives more structure to the application process and would allow ICASA to focus it’s efforts to screen and vet applications.

When reading this, we have to assume that applications at the authority are treated on a case by case basis, which must have had them running from pillar to post on most days. I would welcome them streamlining their application process and limiting applications to only two windows per year. I of course am not applying for a license, so whether or not this affects you I wouldn’t be able to tell. Feel free to comment in the space below this article.
The Authority’s intention to develop a new regulatory framework for community broadcasting during the 2016/17 financial year

I’ve seen some horrible things play out (that was a pun, only radio people would pick it up though) at Community Radio Stations which not only hurt the community that they serve, but the stability, authority and reputation of the entire community radio sector.

Without sharing any specific stories, every regulated industry can do with a refresh of the framework governing it every so often if for nothing else (such as corruption and abuse) than the fact that we live in a changing world and with each year that passes by, we learn better ways to do things; better ways to achieve goals and more efficient ways of doing radio.

Bring it on ICASA… I applaud you for this one.
It should be noted that the moratorium does not apply to pending registrations currently before the Authority and applications already approved but not issued with community sound broadcasting licences. This is verbatim from the ICASA press release.

Back in August 2008 when ICASA placed a similar moratorium on community applications, they stated in the gazette that it would not apply to special event and temporary licenses. One would assume that this MIGHT be the case this time as well, although not mentioned. I would chose to err on the side of caution though, if ICASA’s first reason for this moratorium was “due to lack of available analogue frequency” then we have to assume that the lack of these frequencies would similarly limit temporary/special event licenses even though, to my knowledge, they once held certain frequencies aside for these purposes.
So, how do we feel as a company providing services in the Community Radio Sector?

NetDynamix has never operated “above the authorities” at all, on the contrary we work with ICASA all the time. We would never fight a moratorium placed with such fair reasoning behind it. We would rather work in a stable community radio sector than one where our clients are fighting against each other for bleeding over each others FM spectrum or stations having to close down due to various reasons. Stable framework will lead to a stable sector.

Depending on your sources, South Africa has somewhere between 120 and 170 community radio stations in their various forms (licensed but not on air; licences and on air; etc) – these figures don’t include stations operating on the internet using Streaming technologies as their primary broadcast mechanism. The sector is mostly healthy and 99% of the time when I visit a community radio station I’m blown away by how much value they’ve added to their community.

We look forward to ICASA’s announcement on the lifting of the moratorium, be sure that we will write a follow up after studying any changes they’ve published to the framework and application process.

We’d like your comments on this topic. Please use the comment section below.

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