The telecom and broadcast licensing regime in Sri Lanka is obsolete. Broadcast licenses are issued under obscure provisions of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Acts. The licenses have no terms and fees are to be informed in the future. Telecom service providers, including Internet Service Providers, are licensed under section 17 of the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act, No. 25 of 1991 as amended. The Minister (at present the President) is the actual licensor, though he has to act on the written advice of the TRC. There is no formal recognition of the difference between licenses that involve scarce resources or are limited in number for other reasons and authorizations which can be issued without numerical limit.
There is no doubt that the entire legal framework governing who can supply telecom and broadcasting services requires modernization. The government, in the midst of its transitional travails, conducted one consultative event focused on media law reforms suggesting that new legislation may be on the agenda. Ideally, the exercise will not be limited to broadcasting.
In the meantime, life must go on. Various companies want to offer new services and consumers should not be deprived of them simply because the government is considering legislative reforms.
In the short term, transparency is the key. Large numbers of FM radio and TV licenses were issued between 2004 and 2014 without any transparency or fair process, despite their reliance on a true scarce resource which are frequencies in extremely valuable bands. On the 10th of June, the TRC published a public notice under section 17(2) of the Act seeking comments on the issuance of a satellite TV license. This is a progressive step. Those who have any concerns should communicate them, without questioning the entire licensing process. We should encourage the TRC to use its unused transparency and consultation powers under sections 17 and 22, not scare them off by launching broadsides against the agency.
In terms of the substance, the operation of a satellite uplink does require the use of frequencies, a scarce resource. But it is also true that the availability of these particular frequencies is not highly constrained (like those used for TV broadcasting and mobile telecom services). Giving these frequencies to the present applicant is unlikely to negatively affect future applicants.
The license appears to require all uplinking to be done from within Sri Lanka. This makes the system to be “a system” as defined by the Act and thus requires a section 17 license. But it is known that thousands of subscribers are receiving satellite TV services from unlicensed providers with uplink stations located outside Sri Lanka. It would be useful to examine the overall industry, including the unlicensed providers and the existing providers, in the course of issuing this license.