DESPITE the warnings on August 4, 2004, of then Cabinet Minister Obie Wilchcombe that “while government had 50 applications for additional broadcast licences for New Providence, it would have to proceed very carefully, if at all, as the market is overcrowded.” That was 14 years ago,
URCA — created to protect that market — today seems intent on destroying it by trying to figure out ways and means to squeeze in another newcomer — with not one, but two licences.
Intent on accommodating certain new applicants, URCA complains that “its current data collection practice is not fit for the purpose and is inadequate in light of experience, best regulatory practices and changing market realities in The Bahamas”. This probably justifies URCA’s disregard of the financial risks being put on the existing market by its reckless decision; refusal to adhere to its legislative procedural requirements or failure to fulfil its ‘Duty to Consult’ with those already in the market and the irreparable harm it has done to existing licensees.
There is a current dispute going on between URCA and the licence holders of radio station 103.5 FM. Apparently, a licence issued by URCA in 2010 to 103.5 FM’s owners is — according to URCA — “defective and void”. As a result, URCA “approved” the majority takeover of station 103.5FM by another entity, which admits that in fact it had never filed a written application for approval for a change of control as prescribed under Section 70 (4) of the Communications Act.9.
Deciding that the current rules are not adequate for today’s market, URCA has announced — without any consultation with licensees, already established in business for many years – that it intends to “fast track” its authority under section 30 of the Communications (Amendment) Act, 2011 to open up more radio spectrum bands, by forcibly removing current broadcasters from their assigned frequencies within 90 days — and reduce their transmitting power by 80 percent to make room for new entrants into the broadcast market. Not only does URCA arbitrarily plan to do this, but it is going to dust off its 2015 consultation document whereby incumbent broadcasters would pay for URCA’s spacing mismanagement.
Even the “numbers boys” understand the crisis of proliferation. In November 2016, a year after the Christie administration issued a provisional licence to eight web shop companies, Craig Flowers, a pioneer in the gaming industry, complained about the “proliferation” of numbers houses. He wanted to know when the Christie government would further clamp down on the proliferation of web shops.
We ask the same question about the proliferation of radio licences into a market that has almost been choked to death. We understand that one of the numbers’ group is now anxious to get into the FM radio business, hence the hurried and unfair shove being given to 103.5 to make room.
Between 1993 and 2009 - 16 years – ten licences were issued by the then Prime Minister and the Public Utilities Commission. Within four years after URCA’s creation in 2009 it had issued 37 licences, almost collapsing the market.
In 2015, when we compared the various markets we discovered that The Bahamas with a population of 377,374 had 47 broadcast licences. It was rated as “unsustainable”. However, Barbados, for example, with a population of 287,562 and five licences was regarded as “highly competitive”. London, with a population of 8,430,000 and 33 licences was also “highly competitive”. On a list of nine countries, which included Barbados Trinidad, Jamaica, all were considered to have a highly competitive broadcast climate because they had a responsible number of licences. The Bahamas stuck out as a sore thumb quickly heading for collapse.
Under the Communications (Amendment) Act, 2011 the Minister is “responsible for deciding the method of allocating frequencies in the premium spectrum band of the spectrum plan”. In addition to other responsibilities of this minister it is provided that “no premium spectrum licence shall be issued by URCA before the Minister has decided the method of allocation frequencies in the premium spectrum band of the spectrum plan”.
We would suggest that whoever is the Minister — we understand that the Attorney General has oversight — he should quickly inspect URCA before an “unsustainable” industry collapses.