The small country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine does not shine in terms of transparency and ease of circulation of radio and media news. The internal political situation is confused, the fact that Transnistria (with a Russian-speaking majority) is de facto independent (and has long since switched off all OIRT band installations) are other elements that do not help to easily decipher the situation.
However, up to the end of 2020, some fifteen installations on the ‘old’ FM were in operation, both from public and private operators. These included Radio Free Europe (in local language), the station funded by the US Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
If the news, although fragmentary, excludes the shutdown of the various stations (Radio Moldova Actualitati, Radio Micul Samaritean, Vocea Beserabiei and other smaller ones), some more concern is aroused by the situation of the three Radio Free Europe stations: in fact, the one operating on 69.53 has recently been reported switched off and this raises some questions. Is the shutdown temporary (due to a fault or something similar) or permanent? Will the other two RFE frequencies (68.48 and 70.31) soon be switched off too, or will they continue? However, the delicate political situation in the country (and in the area surrounding the Black Sea as a whole) means that even a partial shutdown of the station is unlikely.
And there are also lights on the analogue TV channels R2 and R3 (with the audio carrier, respectively, on 65.75 and 83.75 MHz) because the analogue-to-digital switch originally planned in 2015 has not yet been completed and it seems that the possible new end date isSeptember 2021.
The annual report on the information industry in Russia covers many aspects of the media. Among these, we have focussed our attention on the move to digital TV, FM band migration and the increase in numbers of transmitters, and digital radio coming to a stop.
Analogue TV is dead! (but still operating alongside digital)
The switchover to digital was completed in 2019. It was proudly announced that the transition took ten years, which was faster than the United States (11 years), Australia (12) and Great Britain (14). In addition, with 98.4% of the population being able to tune in, Russia beats France (97.3%), Austria (96.0%), Switzerland (*) (95.0%) and Portugal (92.7%). However analogue TV is not totally dead. The national channels have been switched off, but the regional channels are still operating. And there are quite a few of them. Our FMLIST correspondent in the Republic of Karelia (east of Finland) confirmed that there are a good five of them in the city where he lives.
(*) Switzerland has switched off terrestrial TV via DVB-T in summer 2019
Radio stations move to FM
The state radio network will be moving from broadcasting on the OIRT band (between 65.8 and 74 MHz) to the European FM band (87.5-108 MHz), where the commercial radio stations are already present. New licences will be granted to Radio Mayak and Vesti FM in order to allow them to broadcast in all cities with over 100,000 inhabitants. In order to manage the increase in number of channels, they are studying isofrequency networks used abroad in countries like Moldavia, where the radio station Inter-FM can be received with traffic information along the motorway. A solution based on a lot of low power transmitters would also not infringe health regulations that limit the use of high power transmitters.
‘The market is not ready’ for DAB
The development of digital radio in Europe is analysed in the report. But this ‘revolution’ will not be happening in Russia. Even though frequencies for DAB+ transmissions have been allocated, this does not mean that they will be activated. The Ministry of Communications believes that the advertising market is not mature enough yet to justify the increase in the numbers of radio stations that can use updated technology.
St. Petersburg is experimenting with DRM+
Therefore the aim is to develop broadcasting systems such as DRM+ that allow a radio station to also transmit digital channels on the same FM frequency, leaving listeners free to equip themselves to receive transmissions in high quality sound, but not being obliged to replace their radio with a new one (estimated cost of about $10 US). In July 2019 Comedy Radio carried out tests in St. Petersburgby digitally broadcasting three channels on 95.7 MHz FM. The first one was a repeat of their analogue channel with a bitrate of 33 kbps, the other two were Avtoradio (43 kbps) and Evropa Plus (20 kbps).
Families that cannot afford a decoder, political instability and broadcasters’ inertia are all slowing down the change to digital. It is a situation that, considering the proximity of the Presidential elections, is convenient for the political parties.
Initially planned for December 31st, 2017 (law nr. 167 passed in 2015) the transition to digital TV was then postponed to March 1st, 2020 (law nr. 8 passed in 2018).
However, political instability in the Republic of Moldova complicated everything when nearing the deadline. In June 2019 President Igor Dodon was suspended by the Constitutional Court due to him not being ableto form a government within 90 days following the elections. After this a combined diplomatic intervention by Russia, the United States and the European Union led to a partly pro-Russia and partly pro-Europe coalition government being formed. However, the pro-Europe, liberal Prime Minister, Maia Sandu lasted for only five months and was replaced by Ion Chicu, a technocrat supported by the Socialist Party. If you are interested in reading more about the specific phases of the crisis please click here.
Families do not have the money for a decoder
The main hurdle to transition, according to the Minister of the Economy and Infrastructure, Anton Usatii, is that a large number of families simply cannot afford to buy a decoder (the country has a population of 3.5 million and one of the lowest GDPs in Europe). In 2018 the government gave away 8,922 decoders but this supplied fewer than 20% of the families that receive social assistance (more than 51,000).
The State is going to buy them at € 12.50 each
The Minister set the deadline for the month of May 2020, also in order to resolve the problem of the national TV stations being behind schedule. Click here for more technical details by a media expert. He then invited families to make an official request for decoders and called for a tender in order to purchase 30,000 at the price of € 12.50 each. For further details click here and here.
But then politics interfered
A new crisis then changed the political framework. The government was led by the democrat, Ion Chicu (pro-Europe and centre left, but near the controversial oligarch, Vlad Pllahotniuc). Curiously, the government was sworn in on March 16th, 2020, the closing date for bids for the supply of decoders. The Ministry of Economy and Infrastructure went to the democrat, Sergiu Railean, who was to evaluate the bids (there were two). But notwithstanding the Covid crisis, even if the contract had been signed immediately, it would have taken two months for the decoders to have been supplied and they would have been distributed in the middle of the summer. The Minister has not spoken about a new deadline.
So the political parties are behind ‘the slowdown’?
The opposition fears that the delay is due to the fact that the TV stations that still transmit in analogue are those near the two parties in government. It would be convenient to not have competitors until November, when the new President of the Republic should be elected. However, even the stations are also reluctant because they believe that the rent for the band in the only national multiplexing transmission system is too high to support in absence of a switch off. They are talking about € 6,000 a month.
According to the pro-Russian press, on the other hand, everything is OK. In February 2020 the Secretary of State for IT & C, Vitalie Tarlev, asserted that the only DVB-T2 national multiplexing system had a 97% coverage of the country. And regarding the switch off, the date December 2020 is being thrown around because from 2021 even Moldava has to release frequencies that will be used for 5G. Find another article here.
Franco Martelli in collaboration with Sergiu Musteata.