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SUTEL recognizes that use of the radio spectrum is chaotic

“On 13 July 2014, it its report on the proposed transition to digital broadcasting, the Comptroller General of the Republic warned about the lack of controls on the use of frequencies, the obsolescence of existing legislation on this matter, and expressed concern about possible cases of ownership concentration…”

 Daniela Muñoz Solano */ Costa Rica, 2014.

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Non-fulfilment of their obligations by concessionaries; geographic concentration of television and radio broadcasts; and a general underuse of the radio spectrum are the main findings of two studies recently published by the Superintendency of Telecommunications (SUTEL).

These results confirm what many social sectors had previously stated: distribution and current use of the radioelectronic spectrum does not guarantee universal access to radio and television broadcasting, while at the same time State control in the administration of this public good is failing.

The investigation, ordered by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Telecommunications (MICITT), was carried out during 2012 and 2013. Its aim was to measure the use of several radio frequency bands, including those intended for television broadcasting and FM radio.

The results of the analysis were declared confidential by the SUTEL Council on 17 April 2013 and for a period of six months. Although this deadline passed more than a year ago, the reports had still not been made public until the weekly publication UNIVERSIDAD requested that SUTEL release the findings.

Non-fulfillment, bad coverage and ownership concentration

The report reveals data on the use of the band for FM broadcasting services as well as that used for television broadcasting services.

Similar conclusions can be drawn regarding both areas, particularly in terms of the non-fulfilment of coverage obligations for franchise operators (which on average, in both cases, is below 37%) and, above all, in coverage outside of the Central Valley zone.

In the case of television frequencies, it was noted that there are 18 licensees (equivalent to 13 channels) that are not in operation; i.e., 20% of the over-the-air TV channels are not being used.

With respect to radio transmission, it was noted that there are levels of coverage lower than 18% in the Chorotega, Huetar Norte and Huetar Atlantic zones, which also happen to be the same areas where 71% of complaints against “pirate” broadcasters were received. It can thus be concluded that it is the poor radio coverage that has led to the emergence of these illegal broadcasters.

The Superintendency concluded, and in both studies, that there is an underuse of the spectrum, given that it «is not carrying out an efficient and effective use of the radioelectronic spectrum» and is depriving the general population of services deemed as a «private activity of public interest».

Given this situation, the commitment was taken to take actions in order to universalize over-the-air television and radio.

Among other recommendations, the body is urging the Executive Branch to initiate administrative proceedings «that promote the efficient use of the radioelectronic spectrum», establish the actual coverage provided by current franchise licensees, and to take actions in order to efficiently allocate this spectrum in areas where there is presently no coverage.

Furthermore, and although the report does not address this particular issue, analysis of the data underlines the concentration of frequencies in the hands of certain business groups (see infographic: «Radio and TV reaches a limited audience»).

One example is the case of the REPRETEL firm, which among its various company names includes 8 television and 7 FM radio frequencies (not counting the 4 AM radio stations that the company recognizes ownership over).

Recognized problem

Although SUTEL has made specific references to the misuse and mismanagement of the radioelectronic spectrum in terms of television and radio frequencies, this is also a subject that has been commented on by various other sectors.

On 13 July 2014[PK2] , in the report on the proposed transition to digital[ac3]  broadcasting, the Comptroller General of the Republic warned about the lack of controls on the use of frequencies, the obsolescence of existing legislation on this matter, and its concern about possible cases of ownership concentration.

In said report, the Comptroller ordered SUTEL to review and in a period of three months (a process concluded over a year ago) the broadcasting licenses that had been issued, and to draw up a plan of action in cases of concentration of frequencies.

Likewise, the Comptroller also ruled that steps should be taken to “immediately begin proceedings to revoke, terminate and adjust those broadcasting licenses in cases where frequencies were not being optimally used.” However, the Deputy Minister of Telecommunications, Allan Ruiz, has confirmed that to date no such proceedings have been initiated.

According to Ruiz, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Telecommunications (MICITT) is reviewing the cases of some broadcasting franchises that apparently are not being used and, if applicable, “administrative proceedings in accordance with legal and constitutional principles» will be taken.

In October 2013, the Media and Alternative Communications Initiatives Network (REDMica) published the study “The broadcasting world in Costa Rica: what the law says and what is really[ac4]  happening”, which indicated the problems of coverage in terms of radio frequency license holders, the «central valley» presence of broadcasters, and the concentrated ownership of radio stations by business conglomerates.

The communications specialist Laura Chinchilla Alvarado, who led the investigation, stated that the reports prove that “in Costa Rica the way radio and TV frequencies are being used is both chaotic and illegal.” Adding that although the radioelectronic spectrum is a public asset according to the country’s Constitution, the State “has not shown the capacity to administer this area, which is being used more as a private asset”.

According to Adriana Naranjo of REDMica, the percentage of non-fulfilment among broadcasting license holders is much higher than would be expected. “We are talking about large geographic areas and sectors of the population without access to either radio or television broadcasts. The negligence of the State in properly controlling this concessionary asset is deeply concerning.”

Marlon Mora, president of the Association of Journalists (Colper), a body that has also raised the alarm in the past regarding the problems associated with the administration of the radioelectronic spectrum, stated that the studies didn’t present anything new, rather they simply confirmed that the country urgently required new legislation to ensure universal access to radio and television broadcasts and, therefore, the right to communications.

«In the case of 89% of the broadcasting license concessions granted, there is an obligation to provide national coverage, but this is simply not happening. There is a need for a universal approach to broadcasting” declared Mora, warning that “if we do not do this now as a country, we are moving backwards in terms of democratic processes”.

For Giselle Boza, lawyer, journalist and director of the Program on Freedom of Expression and the Right to Information (Proledi) of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) it is deeply concerning that (according to SUTEL) most license holders are not fulfilling their commitments to provide coverage in accordance with the law. Adding that regrettably “the inability of public bodies” to comply with the principles of efficient and optimal administration is clearly evident, given that in the case of commercial radio stations that fail to meet their obligations “the law requires that steps be taken to revoke the authorizing licenses”.


Related links:

Government issues 2015-2021 Telecommunications Plan

Media concentration in Costa Rica: grave limitation to think and exercise communications as a human right

Central America lacks policies to guarantee the right to communication


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