Media. The Ministry of Economic Development accused of favoring the big networks in the auctions of radio frequencies. Broadcasting on AM has low costs for large spaces, so it is coveted by community broadcasters. DIY projects to fight concentration announced at the recent hackmeeting in Val Susa (Turin)

The underground battle for the Italian radio waves

The end of the radio is one of the many never-fulfilled prophecies that accompanied the advent of the digital age. That the power of communication via air is far from setting is confirmed, for example, by the story on the allocation of AM frequencies in our country.

Commonly referred to as “medium waves,” this portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is now at the center of an underground (for now) battle made of regulations, rankings, appeals to the regional courts and self-constructed systems of transmission. A crowd of very different contenders and interests are gathering on this field: large companies in the world of radio, aspiring community radio stations, European institutions, amateur radios and pirates of the air.

The AM frequencies differ from the most popular FM frequencies for a number of technical reasons.

First of all, the transmission capacity: the radio waves transmitted by the “old” AM technology can achieve much greater distances than those propagated through FM. Of course, the latter have a much higher quality of sound but, for this reason, these frequencies are very crowded.

It is commonly known that big radio stations compete with one another to occupy this more “valuable” section of the electromagnetic space: betting on powerful and expensive transmitters – both in terms of energy expenditure and cost of hardware – they pump up their signal to the limit, in an attempt to cover up the transmission of their competitors.

On the other hand, the AM broadcasting process requires not particularly powerful transmitters and, for this reason, these transmitters are affordable and consume very little energy. Because of these characteristics, the medium waves could pave the way for cultural experimentation and bottom up policies: community or college radio, neighbourhood stations or radio stations that are not necessarily forced to change their schedule depending on the wishes of advertisers.

The AM frequencies are an integral part of radio infrastructure in many European states.

In the UK, the legislator provides a protected bandwidth for low-power broadcasting: at the end of 2016, various frequency assignments were reserved for community radio. In Greece, there are numerous medium-wave radio stations that, in the face of a substantial tolerance by the Greek authorities, broadcast in an unauthorized manner. In the Netherlands instead, each city has freely usable frequencies reserved for low power broadcasting.

The Italian situation is another ballgame.

Previously the exclusive domain of RAI, the AM frequencies are now virtually unused, partly because of the legal vacuum recorded so far on the matter. Although anyone has, at least in theory, the right to broadcast, nobody is allowed to do so without prior authorization. A paradoxical situation, which the European Union had asked Italy to remedy in 2013, threatening the opening of an infringement procedure against our country if Brussels’ demands were not met.

The positive response of the Ministry for Economic Development (acronym in Italian, Mise) was issued in August 2016, when Palazzo Piacentini finally opened a public tender for the allocation of the frequencies in question. Does all that is well end well? Not exactly.

The first round of the tender ended on September 30th last year. The result is a substantial failure: faced with a very high number of applications (about 800 applications were submitted), only two frequencies were assigned. The Ministry went back to work and published not one, but two new confidential tenders on the frequencies not assigned in the first round. It is a move that does not seem to be conclusive and does not address the critical issues that had impacted the first call. The rules dictated by Mise to define the ownership of frequency allocation are unclear, and at the same time exclusive.

For example, in the evaluation process, the “economic potential” of the applicant is worth 10 points. Translation: if the bidder is unable to present a business plan – that is, all those people that don’t already constitute a commercial activity – is penalized. Among other requirements, then there is a request for a certificate of reliability issued by a bank: it is unlikely that an association or a neighborhood radio can obtain this document.

Another limitation imposed by Mise is prohibitive: the maintenance of the transmission site will be borne by the transmitter. Taking into account that these sites may have been built in the past, perhaps for the Rai, it is really hard to imagine that a small radio can be burdened with this expenditure. Finally, there is the problem of the equipment.

The tenders do not mention self-construction: a practice that, given the low power required by AM broadcasting, would be within the reach of the pockets of all. By contrast, the guidelines at Palazzo Piacentini point to the approval of the equipment: this is significant problem when you consider that, in Italy, there are no AM transmitters manufacturers.

In short, if in the rest of the world, the medium waves are ridden by independent actors, the choices made so far by the Italian government seem to paddle in the opposite direction, discouraging the participation of those not supported by an economic plan.

Just take a look at the list of companies accepted to the selection procedure. This list includes, for example, Monradio and Incentive Promomedia. The former is a subsidiary of Radio 101 (a company part of the Mediaset Radio group) while the latter is an active advertising company since 1994 in marketing oriented to large retailers (that is radios in supermarkets). In the list, there are other giants (like RTL 102.5), while there are very few names related to advocacy groups.

“I think that less than 25 percent of the total list is made of advocacy actors. The rest are commercial corporations or otherwise, companies that are already dealing with communication. There is no openness to community radio.” So says Andrea Borgnino, one of the most respected experts in Italy in the field of wireless radio broadcasting. He is the author of several essays on the experience of pirate radios and presenter of the show “Interference” on Radio3 Rai (a program entirely dedicated to the world of the radio). Borgnino defines the choices made by the ministry as “a lost opportunity. The result will be bad radio that, I fear, no one will listen to.”

The game is not yet closed. The lack of clarity in the allocation of frequencies does indeed forecast a shower of appeals to the Regional Courts to question the whole legitimacy of the process used by the Ministry. And in the middle, there are also some hacker groups.

Between June 15th and 18th, the twentieth edition of Hackmeeting was held in Val Susa. This is the annual gathering of the digital counterculture. During the meeting, workshops were held to discuss the political value the medium waves can offer in this historical phase. While other workshops were dedicated to self-construction of AM transmitters, in case the Mise was unwilling to revise its decisions.

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