During the Cold War, the FM band in Eastern European countries was different. Radio stations transmitted between 65.8 and 74 MHz (except in East Germany), called the OIRT band; frequencies used in the West by television. As a result, citizens could not pick up signals from capitalist countries, and vice versa. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the band was gradually abandoned, but there are still several nations in Europe that have not switched off all their OIRT transmitters: Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. In recent years, however, the decommissioning of the band has accelerated and the signals are now drastically reduced. In a number of articles, we examine the situation in each country.
Russia: in large cities the switch off goes slowly
In the report published in 2020, we talked about the decision of the government to move the broadcasters from the OIRT band to the CCIR (87.5-108.0 MHz). The state-owned Radio Rossii, which has already deactivated many installations, proceeds to switch off as soon as the communications authority makes available a frequency in the CCIR band. The switch-off has gone fast in the most peripheral areas of the endless Russian Federation, where the band is free, but it is going slow in the biggest cities, where the band is close to saturation. It also does not help that Russia uses a very “wide” channel spacing: in Moscow, the standard distance between stations is 400 kHz (while in many European countries it is 300 kHz, and drops to 200 kHz in some large Italian metropolitan areas). So in St. Petersburg, there are still four frequencies active in the OIRT: Rossii on 66.3 MHz, Radio Peterburg on 69.47 MHz, Orfey on 71.66 MHz, and Grad Petrov on 73.1 MHz. On YouTube you can listen to a scan of the OIRT band, recorded on March 27, 2021, and hear the four stations. In Moscow, only 66.44 MHz (Rossii from Ostankino), 68.0 MHz (Avtoradio), and 72.92 MHz (Radio Radonezh) are active. In the Kaliningrad Oblast (Russian enclave wedged between Latvia and Poland), 65.9 MHz and 66.02 MHz of Radio Rossii have been switched off, and only 72.11 (Radio Shanson) is on air.
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.