Free the airwaves

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am

As a media practitioner, who has spent many years in front of a radio microphone, I have to declare an interest when I air my support for liberalising the airwaves. In the past year, I have researched the licensing procedures for radio broadcasting; I found it is not that difficult to apply for a commercial radio broadcast licence.

Applications are made to the Broadcasting Authority. One is required only to have enough capital, possess the technology and meet the requirements of an applicant. Upon receiving an application, the government will publish it on the Broadcasting Authority website and in the gazette for public consultation.

The application procedure for a digital broadcast licence is equally straightforward. I understand that a veteran environmentalist already has a licence. But, according to the Broadcasting Ordinance, pilot tests can only be broadcast using content provided by existing licensees, because all content is regulated by the Broadcasting Authority.

Of the three existing radio stations, only RTHK has conducted digital radio pilot tests, which stopped after six months because of a funding shortage. Commercial Radio has decided not to pilot digital broadcasting at all, while Metro is keeping an open mind. In short, digital radio in Hong Kong is still a non-starter, lagging way behind digital TV.

Hong Kong should move quickly to liberalise the airwaves. It is understood that the government is prepared to reserve 'Band3' for digital radio and let market forces drive developments. But the market-led approach will not work if potential investors do not see how they can make a profit. The development of broadband TV in the past is a case in point.

To promote digital radio broadcasts, the government should first shoulder the social cost to set up a digital platform as infrastructure. Businesses and social organisations may then lease channels from the government. By then, commercial broadcasters will compete to stay ahead by launching digital broadcasts. On the other hand, the public service digital broadcaster should offer community channels for civic groups to express their views, in the interest of freedom of speech.

The development of digital radio takes time. During the transition period, a simple revamp of existing frequencies will release two more channels for new players, which can go some way to satisfy existing demand.

With all that background, it is not difficult to understand the recent controversy surrounding the prosecution of the unlicensed Citizens' Radio. I understand that one of the operators, Tsang Kin-shing had only submitted a two-page application for a radio broadcast licence. He sought an FM frequency for local broadcast as the first phase, to be followed by launching an AM channel. Digital broadcast was to be the third phase.

Tsang's application was made in the form of a letter, but it failed to set out the applicant's professional qualifications, experience, technical competence, financial strength or operational capabilities. Because of the lack of details in his application, he did not satisfy the requirements.

The government is understood to have responded to Tsang's application but he was unable to supplement the required information to satisfy the licensing authorities. Though Tsang's courage in launching acts of civil disobedience should be applauded, the controversy over free speech and the legal wrangles could have been avoided if the government had explained to the public the inadequacy of the application.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen told legislators on Thursday that a public consultation on public service broadcasting will be shelved while a judicial review determines if the Telecommunications Ordinance violates the Basic Law.

The existing restrictive broadcasting policy is a relic of the colonial past. Today's Hong Kong is a free, open and pluralistic society. Our airwaves should be opened to allow different voices to be heard. This is the only way to answer the needs of our time.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator