Q: New regulations were brought into streamline the frequencies of the local FM radio channels. What was the reason for this?
For the last 25 years the Media Ministry and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) have given licences for a number of channels, numbering about 45. We are using the frequency between 87.5 Megahertz to about 108 Megahertz; that is our frequency range for 45 channels. Therefore the gap between each channel is about 100 kilowatts/ basis points to 200 kilowatts/ basis points. Due to this small gap, there is automatically an interference between the two channels. Therefore we receive persistent complaints from the general public or the channel owners.
Previously we used a system of stations, where each channel was given a special frequency licence to broadcast from different stations in various areas. What happened through this system was that suppose one station had the frequency of 87.3 in Colombo, then in Deniyaya another channel would be given that frequency, this led to a situation where the same frequency was given to about 7 or 8 channels in different parts of the country. The exceptions are Nuwera Eliya and Yatiyanthota, which we treat as islandwide frequency stations.
Therefore if a channel changes the antenna pattern or they are using transmitters with a higher power, approved by the TRCSL, or they change the deviation—this automatically disturbs other frequencies and the listeners of these other stations don’t get clear reception. That has been happening for the past 10 to 15 years. When we receive complaints, we have only very short- term answers; we ask the broadcaster to either change the deviation or remove the antenna pattern or to reduce the transmitter power—we issued them warnings of this nature. However that is not a long lasting solution to the problem.
I was appointed to this post in 2010, and I took the time to study the area since I was not in the Telecom (I am from the Sri Lanka Administrative Service). I had discussions with my engineers and looked into the problems very carefully. I asked them what they thought were the solutions to this problem and then we also discussed ideas in a committee, I was the chairman of the committee and it consisted of telecommunications experts from the Arthur C. Clark Centre, the Army, Navy, Air force and police, and various other state institutions and individuals from Moratuwa and Colombo Universities. We came up with two proposals; one was to cancel the frequencies of at least ten channels and the other proposal was to keep the 45 channels and distribute the channels in a scientific manner.
We could not even consider cancelling 10 channels, because we would have no basis to do so. How are we to pick? Therefore, we were advised by the President, who is the minister concerned with the TRCSL, to go for option two.
Our system was that if a channel had five or more frequencies cross the island, that channel would be given two frequencies and any channel that had less than five would be given one frequency—these frequencies would apply for the whole island from every telecommunication station.
The trick here is that the guard band (the distance in wavelength between two frequencies) between two frequencies for the same channel is within 200 KHz/ basis points, for example say one channel has its first frequency at 87 then its next frequency is 87.2. When it comes to different channels the basis points is 300 KHz, therefore say one channel is at 87.2 then the competing channel will be at 87.5. What happens under this system is that if any channel wants to have high deviation or high power transmitters—they disturb their own frequency. This means that the channel needs to discipline itself, otherwise it will disturb their own frequency—if you try to disturb another channel you automatically disturb your own channel.
This self-discipline has already come into effect, because many of the channel heads are now asking me if the TRCSL can help them to tune their deviation, because they know that if their deviation is high they are in trouble.
Q: How did you ensure that the frequencies were distributed to various media companies in an equitable manner?
The SLBC, because it has the most number of services, has some priority automatically. What we did was we took the total list of frequencies and divided it into four bands and told each media company that it could pick one frequency from each band. Only those companies that had more than four channels get to pick from more than one category. This was a very fair way of allocating the frequencies. Through this new system if someone is trying to act funny, then they will be disturbing themselves.
Previously we only had short term solutions to the problem but this is an effective way of combating the indiscipline of stations. Through this system we now have a better hold of the stations.
Q: Was there no way of monitoring the actions of the radio stations, to see who is surpassing their bandwidth or using high powered transmitters?
No we don’t, because the only thing we can do is monitor the antenna speed and pattern from here but we cannot say exactly how much extra they are using. In order to get a correct assessment we have to go to that location, however by the time our officers get there the information that we are coming has already reached and they have temporarily corrected it.
We are going to import more sophisticated equipment as early as possible; we are looking at bringing this down in 2013. We need to ensure the discipline of this industry, because otherwise things would be difficult for the general public.
Q: Is there no monitoring of the equipment that is imported into the country?
In the old days the transmitter band was locked but now it can be tuned and altered. However we are very particular about the strength of the transmitters that are imported, we are ensuring that 2 Kilowatt transmitters are imported. We are very particular about the specification and we try to ensure that these are in line with the license issued to a particular broadcaster.
Q: What about the drawbacks to the broadcasters and the particular stations. Especially when it comes to advertising and branding, how much of a consideration was that, when you brought in this system?
Yes, I agree in the short run there are some issues. But in the long run, they can now advertise a single frequency instead of multiple frequencies.
Q: But this could not have been an altogether smooth transition, if you had consulted with the broadcasters, many of them would have raised their concerns. What were some of these concerns and how did you resolve them?
If they wanted, they could have created some kind of opposition in the country, because this is a democratic country, however they did not—because they felt that this was the best system for everyone. We engaged in a very consultative process, for almost one year and discussed this before we made the changed. I spoke to all of them because many of the channel heads are my friends since I was the head of the government information department for over 6 years.
There were some small issues, but we were able to solve them in an amicable manner because everyone knows that we did this in a very transparent manner.
Q: You mentioned that there are 5000 towers and that the TRCSL is against the erection of any more. Last year a number of environmental groups voiced their concern about a transmission tower being erected close to the Yala National Park. What is the TRCSL doing in terms of mitigating the environmental impact of telecommunications services and the paraphernalia that comes with it?
In order to obtain coverage for all parts of the country, the operators want as many towers as possible. Therefore they submitted to us the papers for erecting a tower, but before we give them approval we get assessments from about 6 to 7 state run institutions; like the Urban Development Authority (UDA), Defence Ministry, Environment Ministry—we wait for their approval, without which we do not give them clearance.
However there are about 19.5 million mobile users in the country, within five mobile companies—all mobile phone users from any of these operators want better reception and if there is no tower in certain areas, you cannot provide this service.
Some people say that these waves are not good for the health, however in Sri Lanka the radiation levels are very low in comparison to India and we are strictly following International Telecommunications Union (ITU) standards.
If they operate within the standards that we proscribe, then they would not have any issues. Only a few have issues, such as being struck by lightning. There are 5000 towers and if they were all susceptible to lightning then we would face a disaster in this country.
Q:Last year the TRCSL also introduced a system where the National ID number and other information had to be registered with the service provider. This was said to be done as a monitoring mechanism of mobile phone users, are there any more system of this nature that will be brought into effect?
We have asked all mobile operators to obtain the IMEI number (International Mobile Equipment Identification Number) and in the next few months we are going to introduce the Central EIR (The Central Equipment Identity Register), a system where we can link with all the operators. Through this system if you import a low quality phone that is hazardous to the health of the public or illegally imported we can track down the phone and if it is disapproved by the TRCSL, we will disconnect it and will not allow it to be used in the system. This will come into effect later on, not immediately—we will give the public enough time to be informed of this system and get used to it before we bring in the regulation.
Comments - 1
JA Gunawardena Friday, 23 November 2012 12:42 PM
The new distribution of frequencies is good but TRCSL is not enforcing it.e.g., Yes FM is sid to be on 100.8/101 but in Kandy 101 has some other service perfectly centered at 101 and cutting on to 100.8 completely knocking out the legitimate channel. Complains to YesFM were ignored.
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