More than legal lapses in NTC assignment of frequencies
THE HISTORIC shutdown of ABS-CBN’s broadcast franchise may have been relegated to old files; but recent developments have brought the issue back into the limelight.
Frequencies once used by ABS-CBN have been re-distributed by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), a move which the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) questioned in a
letter sent to the regulatory body. CMFR also reached out to Atty. Rudolph Jularbal, general counsel and spokesperson of KBP to explain in detail some of the technical issues raised in the letter.
On January 5, 2022, four months shy of the two-year anniversary of the network’s going off-air, the NTC quietly granted provisional authority to several firms to operate the frequencies once assigned to ABS-CBN.
The network had already lost the frequencies as an after-effect of the non-renewal of its franchise in May 2020. Following the expiry and non-renewal, a cease and desist order was issued on all of the network’s free operations, including its analog channel 2. ABS-CBN applied for a new franchise but was rejected as well in July 2020. The NTC then ordered a recall of the frequencies in September 2020.
The news of the assignment of frequencies broke on January 26, when the NTC issued press releases to the media. The NTC press releases said that it had granted provisional authority to operate and maintain a digital TV broadcasting station to the following firms:
- Advanced Media Broadcasting System Inc. (AMBS), which belongs to Manny Villar, billionaire businessman and former senator;
- Swara Sug Media Corporation (SSMC) also known as Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), owned by Duterte Pastor Apollo Quiboloy; and
- Aliw Broadcasting Corporation (ALIW), under Antonio Cabangon Chua who is also chairman of Nine Media Corporation, operator of CNN Philippines
Each of the three firms were awarded frequencies once used by ABS-CBN:
- AMBS – channel 2, ABS-CBN’s analog channel, and channel 16, its digital counterpart
- SSMC/SMNI – digital channel 43, the former site of the network’s Teleradyo and TV Plus programs, aired through blocktiming with Amcara Broadcasting Network
- ALIW – digital channel 23, where ABS-CBN once aired Sports+Action, also through the Amcara blocktime agreement
Broadcast frequencies are a scarce public good, and the application and award process for these are long and rigorous. Media duly noted that both Villar and Quiboloy are known allies of President Duterte, with the former a huge campaign supporter and the latter designated as the president’s “spiritual advisor,” although he has been rumored to provide more than spiritual support.
Media reports cited criticism of patronage issues and political implications, including how this was “payback” to campaign donors. Netizens quickly took to social media to express their dismay, recalling how Duterte had claimed that shutting down ABS-CBN was part of his vow to “dismantle the oligarchy,” only for the frequencies to be awarded to “his own group of oligarchs.” Others noted the haste with which the assignments were made so these could be accomplished while Duterte was still president.
Political and Vested Interests
Partisan issues have always influenced economic decisions and policies. Those involved in business are thus also involved in politics, affecting both the development of sound economic policy and good governance. The public should be aware how political influence affects media freedom and the independence of news organizations.
CMFR has always viewed the vested interests of media owners as potential sources of conflict of interest which can interfere with news practice. The prospect of commercial gains for the businesses of media owners, or those of their friends and families, can disrupt the free flow of news and information and shape the news agenda to fit those interests.
Sadly, political alliances play a role in how a business or commercial venture can prosper. The public must be informed about issues that can influence the selection of news and the discussion of public affairs—which is why the assignment of existing frequencies to new owners should be transparent.
‘Anomalous and Questionable’
According to Jularbal, the assignment to the media owners is a “questionable” deal and NTC failed to follow procedures “they themselves issued.” He added that “hindi ‘to usapin ng frequencies lang (this is not a matter of just frequencies), this is an issue of compliance.”
A closer look into NTC Memorandum Circular No. 01-02-2018 shows that NTC did not follow procedures according to their prescribed sequence. KBP’s letter focused on Sections 3 and 4 and said that “the assignment of Channel 16 to Advanced Media is exactly what the said MC No. 01-02-2018 was intended to prevent.”
SECTION 3. ELIGIBILITY
3.1. All operating and duly authorized Mega Manila VHF television networks are each entitled to a channel assignment from Channels 14 to 20, provided that they file their manifestation to convert their analog television service to DTTB as required under MC No.07-12-2014 and they undergo drawing of lots based on sequence of choice to determine their channel assignment under Section 4.3.1.
3.2. If any of the Mega Manila VHF networks is not interested with its entitlement mentioned in 3.1, thereby resulting in unassigned channel(s) in Channels 14 to 20 after drawing of lots based on sequence of choice among those interested, the Commission shall consider all operating and duly authorized Mega Manila UHF TV networks that have filed the requisite manifestation to convert their analog television service to DTTB as required Under MC No. 07-12-2014.
3.3. Should there be available channels after 3.1 and 3.2, the Commission shall consider entities with pending petitions for the issuance of authorization to provide DTTB service in Mega Manila and with no existing analog VHF or UHF TV operations in the area.
Clearly, the NTC has much to explain. It should prove that it had considered all other eligible existing operators or legacy channels before deciding on AMBS. The KBP letter pointed out the lack of qualification of AMBS which has “no viewers” and has “no broadcast business.”
KBP’s letter stressed that “the assignment of the available channel should have followed the procedures in the sequence laid out in Sections 3.2 and 3.3… instead, Channel 16 was assigned to Advanced Media, a new player in the industry. This is clearly an abuse of authority by the Commission.” Jularbal said that existing operators should be the first in line to be granted such frequencies. “NTC didn’t follow it (their memorandum circular)—simple, it was not followed,” Jularbal said.
Slowing down the shift to digital TV
Further, Atty. Jularbal said that NTC should recall the assignments of channels to AMBS as these will only slow down the policy that had been set in the Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting (DTTB) migration plan. KBP’s letter added to this by saying that “other than VHF operators, not a single existing television broadcaster is being given a frequency to simultaneously broadcast its programs during transition to DTTB.”
In 2017, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) launched the DTTB migration plan which aims to have 95 percent of the country’s households switch to digital television by 2023, shutting down all analog TVs.
Jularbal said that assigning analog channels to AMBS would delay the transition to digital. In the mandatory Analog Shut-off (ASO) by 2023, Juralbal explained that “the migration from analog to digital should be seamless. Channels 2 to 13, which hold the majority of the viewers, should be operated simultaneously to ease the viewers’ (access) and cause less disturbance once shut-off happens.”
He pointed out that new applicants such as AMBS should not pursue analog channels but should operate straight to digital. Because a new applicant was assigned to a highly sought frequency, “it creates a path that delays, prolongs even, the migration to digital,” he said.
Test Broadcast Permits?
The assignment to the AMBS also included a temporary permit to test broadcasts, which in this case involves procuring analog equipment.
Jularbal asked, “How can they test broadcasts when they’re not supposed to acquire any analog transmitters?” He clarified that the digital shift requires that all equipment should be for digital operations. As these permits are temporary, the ability of the holder of a frequency to switch to digital within a set time frame should have been considered.
Further, Pierre Galla, co-founder of Democracy.Net.PH, an advocacy group devoted to Philippine Information and Communication Technology (ICT) policy and legislation, said that test broadcast permits are “to authorize the temporary exclusive use of frequencies that are not yet assigned” and such can be subject to “misuse” if a permit is granted for an indefinite duration.
Media should be following this closely in order to make sure that there is no abuse of the temporary permit.
A call to do better
In an interview in ANC’s Dateline Philippines, NTC Deputy Commissioner Edgardo Cabarios when asked about the timing of the assignments, said the urgency in reassigning the frequency was “for public good.”
Providing for the public good requires transparency, which would oblige the government and all agencies to be open about its decisions. This would require publicizing the availability of the frequencies to as broad a spectrum of players, not just those who are close to the powers that be.
Beyond the technicalities of communication, the objective of government should be to open the field of public communication to free and fair competition, with an eye to what constitutes the greater public good.
NTC’s mission is to “maintain a responsive regulatory environment for an effective telecommunications/ICT sector.” The points made by the KBP, a voluntary association of broadcast media owners, raises crucial points that media should understand and share with the public.
The media should review the NTC assignments, report on the media companies which received these awards, their political and commercial interests and the record of performance to ensure that frequencies and public communication channels serve the public interest.