MEXICO CITY The Mexican government wants to give the majority of AMs in the country the opportunity to migrate voluntarily to the FM band, subject to availability of frequencies.
However no FM frequencies have been awarded; the plan is bogged down in administrative complications and it's unclear when it will move forward.
According to SCT, the agency that sets communications policy, a station that wished to move would have a year from the time of authorization to put an FM station on the air and another year to give up its AM frequency and turn in that license.
This all raises questions about the future of the AM band in that country, and at least one observer predicted the majority of AM broadcasters in Mexico will shutter operations on that band within five years.
There are 1,580 total radio stations in Mexico; 854 are AM and 726 are FM, according to the SCT decision, published in the Mexican equivalent of the Federal Register.
The government aims to give those AMs that move to the FM band equivalent power level/coverage area.
Cofetel, which regulates broadcast communications, released the first list of regions where there is sufficient spectrum to allow AM stations to shift to FM.
The Region I list sets the requirements for issuing authorized frequencies to AM stations to optimize the use of the public airwaves in the transition to digital radio. (Mexico last year began allowing stations within some 200 miles of the U.S. border to use IBOC on an experimental basis; and in the document about offering FM frequencies to AMs, the SCT gave Cofetel a Dec. 15, 2009 deadline to recommend a digital radio standard.)
Cofetel determined the available frequencies in the Southeast, the first region being considered for the move.
Cities included in this Region I tier include Becal, Campeche, Ciudad del Carmen, Francisco Escárcega, Palizada, Xpujil and Tenabo in the state of Campeche; Cancún, Chetumal and Felipe Carrillo Puerto in the state of Quintana Roo; Cárdenas, Comalcalco, Cunduacán, Macuspana, Tenosique and Villahermosa in Tabasco; and Mérida, Peto, Tizimín and Valladolid in Yucatán.
Publishing the list is the first step necessary for stations to transition. Next, AM operators must petition Cofetel for an FM frequency.
From the time of publication, licensees had six days to make their application. They also need a favorable statement from the federal competition authorities and other government officials.
Once it receives the documents, Coftel will analyze the application and, if approved, will assess a fee to cover the costs associated with the frequency change as determined by the Mexican finance ministry. No fee for transition will apply to non-commercial broadcasters.
Once an AM begins broadcasting on an FM frequency, if the coverage area includes populations that can only receive AM signals, the broadcaster will have to continue AM operations until Cofetel determines they are no longer necessary.
But while several AMs from Region I applied for a frequency, none have yet been awarded because the process is tied up in administrative complications. For example, MVS Radio, a group that owns only FM stations in that area, has filed a legal challenge, according to a source that asked to remain anonymous.
The plan to open FM frequencies to AM broadcasters came after members of parliament belonging to the party PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) proposed reforming federal laws governing broadcasting to allocate FM frequencies to all AM operators. No fees for the transition were envisioned.
The proposed changes would also allow operators to seek FM licenses in nearby markets if the FM spectrum was too crowded in their AM coverage area.
Pre-empting the legislative action, SCT published its own rules for an AM-to-FM transition.
Carlos Sotelo, president of a broadcasting trade group, said the move by the SCT likely would benefit the ruling National Action Party, one of the three main political parties in Mexico. It faces elections in 2009.
Sotelo argues that the administration of President Felipe Calderón went too far in publishing these transition rules, bypassing the constitution and the law. He said that since the airwaves are public property, the award of FM frequencies should follow standard licensing procedures, designed to protect the public interest and ensure transparency.
Nevertheless, said Sotelo, instead of focusing on constitutional controversies, the Mexican legislature needs to assume its responsibilities and pass long-delayed reforms for electronic media.
For his part, a former senator and president of the governmental transparency lobby, Javier Corral, called the agreement a "deplorable act of political opportunism" by the federal government, which is "trading public property" for electoral gains.
Corral said that while small operators may appear to benefit from the SCT move, in reality, the move will reinforce the position of networks and groups that have acquired AM licenses in recent years in anticipation of a move to FM.
Despite these concerns from some sectors, broadcasters generally have welcomed the change. Enrique Pereda, president of a broadcast association, congratulated the government on the initiative.
According to Pereda, there is space on the FM band for all AM broadcasters. "If someone has five [AM] stations, the agreement will give him at least one in FM — but everyone is going to get something," he said in an interview with the Reforma newspaper.
As for the re-licensing fee, Pereda said that it would depend on the license area and would not be a great amount for a small city.
Roque Chávez, founder and former president of Radio Independiente, an association devoted to having FM licenses allocated to AM operators, said "It is good to see [it] with my own eyes."
Nevertheless, said Chávez, to accommodate all AM broadcasters on FM, it will be necessary to reduce channel spacing from 800 kHz to 400 kHz, which will mean a standards modification.
Chávez also said he could anticipate the majority of AM broadcasters shuttering operations on that band within five years.
"It is foreseeable that there would only be a few [AM] transmitters still in operation, primarily in the rural areas of the Mexican Republic," Chávez said.
Fernando Mejía Barquera, a radio specialist and researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, a public university based in Mexico City, said the publication of available frequencies in other regions will follow a timeline set out by the Calderón administration.
"We will be looking at the number and location of frequencies offered, and also at the political and technical criteria," wrote Barquera in his column for the magazine Etcétera.
Barquera also questioned what the move will mean for non-profit stations. "The Calderón agreement does not make any reference to the support that a state or local government might grant to educational, cultural or indigenous stations to acquire the equipment needed for FM transmissions," he wrote.
— News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson contributed to this article.