Openness to new operators, transparency, procedures using public competitions and equitable access to frequencies are fundamental facets of a transition that seeks to create greater diversity in media in a TV market that has been dominated by three economic groups for the past 50 years.
Gustavo Gómez*/ Uruguay/ June 2014
The call for new digital TV operators following the approval of Decree N°153 of 2012, which established the regulation of and plan for the implementation of the transition from analog TV to digital, became a point of inflection in Uruguayan communications public policy that went beyond the technological changeover.
The paradigmatic sign of this process was the public hearing held on July 31, 2013 in Montevideo in which six new parties interested in providing open commercial TV services presented their proposals to the people in the context of a public competition.
The use of this mechanism of granting authorization for radio and TV services became a historic milestone for Uruguay. Prior to the arrival of left-wing governments, authorization had always been granted arbitrarily and without a competitive process. The new system is designed to make the process more transparent and to grant guarantees to all interested parties. It also allows for oversight of government action by the people.
Although the decision to release current commercial operators from the requirement of taking part in the transition was questioned by civil society organizations, the model of implementation of digital TV that the country has chosen stands out in the region because it matches international standards in the area of freedom of expression and because of its stated goal of making use of technological change to achieve a media system that has greater diversity and pluralism.
The unique aspects of this model of transition include:
The opening of the TV market to new operators for the first time in over 50 years as part of an effort to achieve greater diversity of media in Montevideo and other Uruguayan cities. The openness preceded the “digital switch-on” or beginning of digital transmissions and was not introduced following the “analog shut-off.”
Recognition of three communication sectors: commercial, public and community. Specifically, the policy expressly recognized the right of communities and social organizations to create community TV channels with procedures that differ from those applied to other sectors and are based on their characteristics and goals.
Equitable distribution of frequencies in order to create a balanced media system (including reserving one third of the spectrum for the community sector). This differs from the current system, in which 75% is dedicated to commercial use. Of the 20 channels available for digital TV service in Montevideo, seven are reserved for community media, seven for commercial channels and six for public TV.
The introduction of digital TV did not increase concentration of power. The regulatory framework stated that the current owners could not obtain new TV authorizations directly or indirectly through family members, administrators or individuals or companies that form part of the same economic group.
During the first stage of the changeover, the calls for bids allowed for the opening of two new commercial channels, two new channels for public broadcasting and one for community TV, which had been non-existent.
The strengthening and diversification of public and non-government media is promoted. The Uruguay National Television (TNU) is supported, and this allows the TV cable signal for the Governor’s Office of Montevideo to be received on a massive scale and as open TV. Access is also granted for regional and local public TV outside of the capital.
Digital TV will continue to be free, like current analog TV. Authorized operators will not be able to charge for any of the services offered or to rent any part of the assigned spectrum to third parties.
The requirements, mechanisms and criteria for the granting of authorization for digital TV service will follow international standards so that there is maximum transparency and in an effort to ensure equality of opportunities for all interested parties. This includes public competitions, minimum requirements, preset criteria, public hearings and citizen oversight through social participation in the entire process.
The authorization procedure for new concessions does not consider the applicant’s economic situation (it is not handled through an auction). The legislation expressly prohibits allocating or rejecting concessions in function of the medium’s editorial or journalistic focus.
The evaluation and selection criteria prioritize the communications plan to be offered and the impact that the granting of the authorization will have on diversity and pluralism within the media system.
The goal is for no analog TV concession company to be left out of the changeover to digital TV. However, Uruguay believes that those companies do not have ownership rights over the spectrum that they currently use, but rather a permit for its use. The regulation only authorized them automatically and under the current minimum conditions (without deadlines, services in return, etc.) to use the signal at standard definition within a shared channel in order to continue to transmit their current programming, thus ensuring continuity of transmissions. If these companies wish to access the new channel exclusively and thus broaden and diversify the currently authorized services, they should take part in the same public call as the new operators and sign a new concession contract that is the same for all parties.
Authorizations for both current transmissions and new ones shall have an expiration date. (Currently, there are precarious and revocable permits that are for all intents and purposes eternal.) These authorizations will last 15 years for commercial TV and 10 for community TV, and they may be renewed for 10 years as long as the companies or organizations follow the communications plans that they submit and submit to public hearings.
For the first time, commercial television stations must provide services in return for the benefit of profiting from the radioelectric spectrum. They must pay a price for the use of the frequencies, set aside 15 minutes for public service programming, and provide access to programs of general interest for individuals with sensory disabilities.
The analog shut-off will take place in late 2015. The concession firms should return the frequencies utilized on the VHF band to the government. Some of the UHF frequencies in which the new digital TV signals will be housed will be set aside for fourth generation voice and mobile data services, also known as 4G services.
Social participation throughout the process has been a key element of the Uruguayan experience in three areas: (design) the approval of the regulation was put to public consultation for the general population and key stakeholders; (implementation) through consultive agencies with broad social, academic and business participation such as the Independent Advisory Honorary Commission (CHAI) broad oversight of the process of granting concessions for digital TV was possible; and (oversight) the creation of the Uruguay Digital TV Consultive Forum, which is responsible for monitoring, supporting and promoting the deployment of digital TV.
* Director of OBSERVACOM and faculty member of the Universidad Católica de Uruguay.