Stricter regulation needed for mobile TV

PC Lau says Broadcasting Ordinance's stricter standards ought to apply

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 2:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 10:12am

HKTV has told the media its mobile TV service will be in 1080i, high-definition resolution. That's the same quality as for conventional HD television.

At present, Hong Kong has two free-to-air TV stations, ATV and TVB. Their transmission practically covers the whole of the territory and has a significant influence on society. They are therefore strictly regulated by the government.

The codes of practice spelled out in the Broadcasting Ordinance set standards of programme content and technical quality, and control the content and other parameters of advertising. The TV stations are also required to provide airtime for RTHK programmes and public-interest announcements. TV service providers are obliged to bear a social responsibility.

However, the regulation of mobile TV is not subject to the same regime.

The frequency spectrum in which HKTV will provide its service is one that China Mobile acquired in 2010. It was one of the five multiplexes in the UHF band identified in Hong Kong, of which three were allocated to ATV and TVB for high-definition digital terrestrial TV.

Back in 2010, mobile TV was still in the nascent stages and its quality was inferior even to that of VCDs. But now, mobile TV can transmit high-resolution images, and any digital TV set can receive the signal directly.

So, the reality is, a mobile TV service can now broadcast in HD quality directly to households, circumventing existing broadcasting regulations and become virtually the third free-to-air broadcasting TV station.

In 2008, the government's framework for developing mobile TV services concluded that mobile TV was unlikely to "have the same pervasive impact as conventional TV at this stage", and saw no need to amend the ordinance to license broadcast-type or streaming-type mobile TV services.

However, in 2010, the government set a licence condition requiring a mobile TV operator to provide coverage for 50 per cent of the population within 18 months from the granting of the licence. Thus, it already recognised the power of mobile TV.

But because they are not subject to the Broadcasting Ordinance, mobile TV services enjoy more freedom, which means there is a greater risk that their programmes could include undesirable content.

Furthermore, there is no control on their advertising time or content. This gives mobile TV a huge advantage in drumming up business revenue. As a result, conventional free TV may eventually be marginalised.

The government faces two problems. First, according to the Broadcasting Ordinance, TV programmes that can be received by 5,000 or more local households free of charge are considered a free-to-air TV service. If a mobile TV service broadcast signals to more than 5,000 local households directly, would that be considered providing a domestic free TV service without a proper licence?

Second, since conventional TV and broadcast-type mobile TV are both using the very limited public resource of frequency spectrums in the UHF band, why is conventional TV subject to the stringent ordinance, while broadcast-type mobile TV is not?

The ordinance currently does not regulate television for mobile reception, that is, reception on the move. However, as technology advances, the line between mobile TV and TV reception tied to specific premises will probably disappear soon.

Whether a TV programme service should be regulated more stringently should really depend on its coverage and influence on society, and not on the mode of reception. The government should seriously examine the need to amend the Broadcasting Ordinance to cope with technological advancements.

PC Lau is a researcher for SD Advocates, a non-party- affiliated private think tank