Off the dial

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 December, 2009, 12:00am

Since October 2005, illegal broadcasts by Citizens' Radio have raised public awareness about the contentious issue of whether the government should liberalise existing airwaves. Although legal proceedings against the radio operator are still ongoing, the government has decided to amend the Telecommunications Ordinance so that the existing regime, under which the granting of broadcasting licences is decided by the Chief Executive in Council, can be incorporated into the ordinance.

It is hoped that this move will clarify current application requirements for the public and potential investors. The Legislative Council Bills Committee on the Telecommunications (Amendment) Bill recently held a meeting at which a cross-section of the community discussed the issue. I attended in my capacity as chairman of Wave Media Limited, which was awarded a licence to operate a radio station by the government last year.

Having experienced the highly cumbersome application process, I realise that there are many misunderstandings about the current telecommunications landscape.

First, many wrongly believe Hong Kong has plenty of unused airwaves, and thus want the government to open them up to allow more public-access channels. They think the FM frequency range can accommodate more than 100 channels at the same time. They argue that, because we have one public broadcaster and two commercial radio stations, taking up only seven channels, the government cannot use the excuse of limited capacity to refuse to liberalise the airwaves.

The reality is that Hong Kong's hilly landscape creates enormous challenges for radio broadcasting. If a radio station wants to cover the whole of Hong Kong, it needs to set up transmission towers in seven districts, using frequencies of various amplitudes to beam signals. So, with the seven existing FM channels now being held by three stations, a total of 49 channels are in fact in use, hence leaving very little free capacity.

Moreover, there are many overlapping broadcasting frequencies between Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland, which need proper co-ordination to avoid interference.

As the Office of the Telecommunications Authority in Hong Kong is fully aware of these intricate operational details, it should clarify the situation. But the best way to tackle our airwave congestion is to develop digital broadcasting.

The second misconception, indeed a fear for some, is that by establishing the telecommunications law, the government might raise its application requirements, depriving those with limited financial resources of the chance to apply for a radio licence.

This worry is largely unfounded because there is no minimum financial requirement for applicants. The law merely requires applicants to have reasonably substantial resources. Supporters of Citizens' Radio wrongly believe that anyone can broadcast with amateur-quality transmission equipment. That's a fallacy because Citizens' Radio's crude set-up can only provide occasional broadcasts that are very close to the frequencies occupied by Metro Radio, interfering with its services.

To operate a proper radio station that broadcasts territory wide and provides a high standard of programming requires a substantial financial investment. The law, therefore, is only trying to hold operators to a reasonably high standard.

The belief that the amended law might stifle the voice of the underprivileged is totally unsubstantiated. Such critics misunderstand the respective roles of a public broadcaster and a commercial one.

The review of the Telecommunications Ordinance will further improve the current regime that guides the licensing requirements and operating standards of radio broadcasters. This exercise, which will bring enormous benefits to the future development of Hong Kong broadcasting, should be supported by the community at large.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator