Spectrum regulation in Argentina: The need to move from broadcasting to access

By Nodo Tau Publisher: APC    

The renationalisation of the control of the Argentine spectrum by the government of Néstor Kirchner deserves to be regarded as a positive historic event, following its abrupt privatisation in 1997 during one of the administrations led by former president Carlos Menem.

In Argentina not one body, but several, manage the spectrum, and their interaction mechanisms are complex. It could even be said that a historical separation exists between policy formulation and spectrum regulation in the country.

On the one hand, the Secretariat of Communications (SECOM – Secretaría de Comunicaciones) and the Federal Authority for Audiovisual Communication Services (AFSCA – Autoridad Federal de Servicios de Comunicación Audiovisual) assign portions of the spectrum devoted to telecommunications and radio broadcasting, respectively. On the other hand, by their request, the National Commission on Communications (CNC – Comisión Nacional de Comunicaciones) monitors the availability and the technical and geographical compatibility of the allocations, so that the CNC gives the green or red light, from the technical point of view, for SECOM and AFSCA to issue licences.

Meanwhile, the National Commission for the Defence of Competition (CNDC – Comisión Nacional de Defensa de la Competencia) shares power with SECOM and AFSCA to prevent crowding of the spectrum and overallocation of frequencies to the same licensee.

A historic but bounded debate

Political and social debate about spectrum allocation in Argentina became participative and fruitful when the Audiovisual Communication Services Law (number 26,522) was discussed. This replaced law number 22,285, which was approved under a de facto government and promoted the concentration of the spectrum in just a few hands. A large number of social organisations participated in that discussion process, and made substantial contributions to the formulation of the new regulatory framework for radio broadcasting.

Although the debate was publicly presented as being in favour of democratising the spectrum, in fact it was limited to the section of the spectrum dedicated to radio broadcasting. What was left out of the discussion was the spectrum section devoted to telecommunications, which is still regulated by a law enacted in 1972. The symbolic weight attached to the fact that telecommunications are still ruled by a legal framework that is nearly 40 years old cannot be overestimated. Taking into account all the technological and institutional changes that have occurred in the country in the intervening period, we believe that reformulating the legal framework will involve a highly relevant debate, and that this will take place in the near future.

While it should be recognised that the political will for a debate of this kind probably exists, we would suggest that as a first step, the importance of plurality in spectrum management should be promoted, beyond radio broadcasting.

A first step for civil society organisations interested in joining the debate would be to establish the concept of broadband access as a right. They would then be able to start to discuss access to the physical means of realising that right. It should be stressed that this debate is overly specific; for it to be effective, it should be simplified and developed as a discussion about the right to public resources, rather than as an exclusively technical discussion.

Broadband across the country

The “Argentina Connected” Argentina Conectada Telecommunications Plan, a strategy to improve broadband access in the country, does not appear as yet to involve changes in spectrum management, but instead to concentrate its eforts on creating a federal data transmission network. In some areas the network is being built, in others it is being put out to tender, and in still others it is in the process of being studied. It is remarkable for the high degree of integration of its design and construction specifications, which offer an interesting opportunity for establishing connections in the deep hinterland of the country.

Everything would appear to indicate that with this plan, wireless access would use the already well-known means: unlicensed bands or WiMAX-type services, usually provided at 3.5GHz. At the same time, the debate on use of the spectrum on bands not assigned to radio broadcasting is practically non-existent, and has a low profile in society.

Some good practices and opportunities

In the field of telecommunications, cooperatives are highly relevant actors that endeavour to exert political influence in favour of a different proposal for the spectrum. They are a key sector when it comes to democratising internet access. Public policies should allow them to develop their full potential, taking into account their disadvantaged economic status.

One type of initiative we believe to be well-founded is the approval of the method for crediting contributions to the Universal Service Fiduciary Fund [Fondo fiduciario del servicio universal], because (among other positive reasons) it places emphasis on the responsibility of private actors. Another interesting alternative which deserves further exploration is the tarifa social para banda ancha or broadband social tariff, similar to the one that exists for cable TV.

Our research also showed that communities of users in free networks have several obstacles to overcome. We believe one way of strengthening them would be for the state to assist the different networks scattered throughout the country in building relationships with each other.

This is a synthesis of the research conducted in Argentina [document in spanish] by Danilo Lujambio, Flavia Fascendini and Florencia Roveri for Nodo Tau, as part of APC’s initiative Open spectrum for development, which aims to provide an understanding of spectrum regulation by examining the situation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This project is part of the ‘Action Research Network’ initiative, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

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Photo by F. Prieto. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0

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