Liberia: Regulatory Authority Issues Caution as FM Radio Stations Risk Shutdown

Monrovia — The Liberia Telecommunications Authority, the regulatory and competition authority charged with the statutory responsibility to ensure a vibrant telecommunications sector in Liberia, is on the verge of implementing and enforcing a new regulation for FM stations which could affect the future of major radio stations operating in Liberia.

LTA Chair, Edwina Crump Zackpah, speaking in an exclusive interview with FrontPageAfrica Monday explained that the new regulation is intended to ensure the proper management of frequencies available to Liberia and prevent its abuse.

Nevertheless, the chair said, the LTA is willing to work with radio station owners to ensure that they stay on the air. "I don't think anybody should be afraid of being shut down as long as they follow the regulation," she said.

The LTA chair said during the end of 2019, the new FM regulation was published on the LTA and the E-mansion website announcing a five-year regime now. "It's no longer a one-year regime. The reason for the five year license regime is to give investors, radio station owners an opportunity, the comfort level to know that they got this license for five years and they can spend money in developing business and not really worried about whether they are going to be renewed or not."

In recent months, Madam Zarkpah said, regulatory findings have indicated that while some radio operators applied to use certain frequencies for non-commercial activities, they are rather using it otherwise. Additionally, Owners and Operators of FM Radio have been found to be in violation of ITU recommended technical standards and without adherence to LTA regulations.

The five-year license under the new FM Regulations seeks to address all issues of compliance, sustainability and efficiency to enhance governance, operations and management of the sector.

There are more than 80 radio stations serving a population of nearly five million inhabitants.

Annual Fee Triggers Concerns

According to the LTA chair, the new regime is slightly different from the old. "The key difference from the old FM regulation is that we have different tiers. I believe there are five tiers in the FM regulation in the nationwide, which is pretty much set aside for the state-owned radio stations and we have the standard radio stations. And the standard radio stations is broken down into four sub-sections - A, B, C & D. Standard A is pretty much for counties and communities with over one hundred thousand listeners and then you have standard B which is between 24 thousand and 100,000 listeners and C which is between seven and 24 thousand listeners so on and so forth. The regulations are online and we want to admonish the stations to do all they can to adhere to the regulations. Majority of the radio stations are operating illegally, majority of the radio stations do not have an active license right now."

While some station owners have balked at the price, the LTA chair says, the fees being charged are fairly low compared to countries in the West African sub-region. "Some of the comments I've heard will be about the fees is that it may be to high, but we did a lot of consultations before coming up with the fees. Stations in Montserrado are required to pay US$300 for registration fee and US&3,000 per year. Compared to other countries in the region, it will be double and triple that amount. During our public consultation, we listened to the people and we put a lot of time and effort to making sure that we have a meeting of the minds with all service providers."

As part of the requirement for renewing license, stations are required to have a permit from the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism(MICAT), the government entity that issues that permit. Without the permit, the LTA chair says, it would be difficult for stations to go on with the process. "You must have a MICAT permit. I know it is renewed yearly, so I urge you to please go and get a new permit. You need to get a business license. Obviously, we cannot underwrite our frequency request if you are not an entity and if you have defaulting obligations with the LTA you need to regularize that - even if it means a payment plan."

In the coming days, Madam Zarkpah says the LTA will be publishing the listing of stations that have not been in compliance with the new regime but promises that stations will be given ample time to apply. "What we've done is that we are sending all radio stations that are not in compliance a reminder letter. We're giving them seven days to regularize their status. What all that means is that either call our office and or come by the office and start the process."

The LTA chair asserted that as long as station management begin the process and negotiate a payment plan they would be in the good books of the LTA. "That is /as long as they can complete the process and not just start and don't complete the process. No one should fear losing their frequency at all. What may happen though, the Engineering and Technology Department headed by Commissioner Maria Harrison, they went ahead and did a frequency allocation table, they updated the frequency allocation table and what that means is that they structured the frequency in a way that we will not experience a lot of interference in the stations. Right now, you may be listening to one station and hear another station coming in, that's called the bleeding on the interference."

The way it's done now, she says, is that the frequency allocation table will prevent bleeding and interference. "Now, what that means for radio stations is what happens if you have a station or frequency assigned to or using right now that is not in the frequency allocation table. It is one that needs to be abandoned. We will ask you that you abandon it - and we will give you a new frequency. So, some frequency station owners may lose their existing frequency but we can assure you that we will find a new frequency for you."

The old regulatory regime expired on December 31, 2019. The deadline for renewal was later extended for all radio stations to March 31, 2020.The process of the new license regime began early 2019 with a moratorium on the issuance of new licenses.

During the drafting of the new regulation on the new 5-year license regime, the LTA solicited inputs from diverse stakeholders'.These inputs were part of the wider stakeholder consultation and included the following: The House Standing Committee on Telecommunications on February 5, 7, and 12, 2019 respectively; All FM Radio Operators,the Press Union of Liberia and other stakeholders with support of its partner- the Internews on March 8 and April 4, 2019 at Bella Cassa Hotel in Monrovia.

The LTA also consulted with other stakeholders in Ganta,Nimba County on July 3 - 4,2019 and followed up with a presentation at a forum organized by the Nimba Community Radio Association with support from the PUL.

As the clock ticks toward the implementation of the new regime, many station owners are already bracing for the unexpected and the LTA is aware of the challenges.

While she says she understand the plight of the station owners, the LTA chair said, the regulations have to be observed. "The stations are running this as a business - and we all know that they have to pay for fuel and business registration and all the other expenses like payroll salaries etc, they're going to have to pay because that's the business and they will have to run their business. Because they do a feasibility study before starting their business - and they cannot have a radio station without an LTA license. So, we want to urge everybody to prioritize it. We're reaching out to people right now, we are giving everybody ample time and opportunity to get their information so that nobody feels left out or feel that they didn't have access to the information and it is suddenly swung at them. We will make sure we go out to the media, go to each station, we're going to email everybody and we are going to call everybody and we want to make sure we give everybody all the information possible to transition every station to the new regime."

This why she says the LTA is giving everyone seven days reminder letters. "If they do not come although I'm sure a lot of people will come. For those that do not come though we will write a notice to revoke - that is the legal process for revocation. Our regulations require that we give them three days, we give the service provider 30 days to remedy their situation, the reason for the notice. We will do that because we have to. We will give each person 30 days - again, come and initiate the process. If something is taking you a little longer and expect delays, we will understand, we are here to work with you. And if for some reason, someone does not come or refuse to come and adhere to the LTA's call then the regulation states that we can suspend or revoke. So, we want to send out this caveat to encourage all radio stations to please come and work with us to transition their stations to the new regime."

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