NBTC preps shift to digital broadcasting
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NBTC preps shift to digital broadcasting

Transition includes community stations

NBTC commissioner AM Thanapant Raicharoen
NBTC commissioner AM Thanapant Raicharoen

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) is planning a transition of existing analogue radio stations to the digital audio broadcasting (DAB) system under its planned licensing regime.

The plan is meant to improve the industry's service standards and help all stakeholders handle digital disruption, according to the telecom regulator.

The shift also includes the 3,900 community radio stations that were permitted by the NBTC to operate on a trial basis.

The NBTC aims to finish the DAB licensing method and principles by the middle of next year, and is planning to start the shift to the DAB system in early 2025. The NBTC panel drafting the DAB licensing regime has already concluded all the licensing details.

The NBTC plans to hold a public hearing on the draft nationwide and the hearing is expected to finish by end of 2024.

NBTC commissioner AM Thanapant Raicharoen, who is in charge of audio broadcasting affairs, said handling the community radio stations is a critical part of the regulator's agenda.

The NBTC will undertake the transition via its third master plan for broadcasting and television businesses, which is slated to be implemented between 2025 and 2030, AM Thanapant said.

The permission granted to community radio stations to operate on a trial basis had been extended for a period of five years by the National Council for Peace and Order through April 2022, then was extended again by the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration until Dec 31, 2024.

A total of 313 FM radio stations hold NBTC licences.

All analogue radio stations operate on the spectrum range between 87MHz and 108MHz.

"One major problem for the transition is that the quantity of spectrum to be allocated is not enough for all radio stations at present," AM Thanapant said.

He said the regulator would have to handle the transition carefully. Licences for the digital radio business will comprise licences for multiplexers (MUXs) or the broadcasting network, and licences for radio service operators.

AM Thanapant said the existing spectrum range is able to serve around 700-800 stations should there be no signal interruption during the stations' operations.

The number of radio stations could be extended to 2,800-3,000 stations under the existing spectrum but all of them would have to cooperate with each other, so they would be able to air programmes without signal interference.

Digital radio requires a new radio receiver and the NBTC office has yet to gain a clear picture of how to incentivise the public to switch to a different radio receiver.

"Shifting to the DAB scheme is the best way for operators and the audience, in line with the industry's development," AM Thanapant said.

The NBTC office will have to offer proper incentives and ecosystem to encourage radio operators to enter the digital radio scheme through an effective operational cost structure.

Under the transition concept, the digital radio regulatory framework which will be enforced by the end of 2024 or early 2025 will not be automatically compulsory to existing community radio stations, but it is an alternative for them to apply for the licences.

AM Thanapant said there are three alternatives when it comes to transitioning to digital audio broadcasting.

First, the government may have to be responsible for installing the multiplexer at a cost of around 1 billion baht for three years of operation, covering 60% of the population nationwide. Second, the NBTC will hold a licence auction for MUX providers of a DAB service nationwide.

Finally, the NBTC will promote the market-driven mechanism for specific areas where groups of community radio stations in each area could collaborate to establish in a joint MUX network and rent this MUX for operating a digital radio service independently.

Technically, one MUX can serve at least 16 digital radio stations.

The number of the community radio stations dropped from over 6,000 in the past decade to around 3,900 stations at present. Their programmes have still been found to interfere with one another, due to their utilisation of too many adjacent frequencies in each area.

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