Radio broadcasting via FM will continue for the time being. But the dispute between transmitter network and antenna operators is far from resolved.
Truce: For the time being, FM reception is still secure Photo: imago/Steinach
"Up to ten million listeners could be affected by a shutdown of their FM radio stations as early as next Wednesday," Media Broadcast CEO Wolfgang Breuer had threatened in Die Welt last week. Forty radio broadcasters were affected, including NDR in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and MDR.
The threat has since been removed from the table. Media Broadcast intends to continue broadcasting until June 30. So, all is well again? No. Quite the opposite. The deadline of June 30 is nothing more than a kind of truce to give all parties time for peace negotiations.
Just how tense the situation is can be read in a letter sent on Sunday by Christian Schwarz-Schilling (who used to be the Federal Minister for Post and Telecommunications) to Helmut Thoma (who was the head of RTL for many years). Schwarz-Schilling is now a shareholder and chairman of the advisory board of Uplink, a broadcast network operator. Today, Helmut Thoma is chairman of the supervisory board of Freenet AG, which also owns Media Broadcast.
Schwarz-Schilling writes that it is precisely Freenet AG’s business model that is based "on the balanced and successful liberalization of telecommunications monopolies". And with regard to the threat by Media Broadcast CEO Breuer, he writes further: "It shocks me all the more that one of your employees deliberately tramples on these achievements, which also give your company the right to exist, for selfish reasons."
Three steps from station to radio
How does Schwarz-Schilling arrive at these accusations? For this purpose, it must be briefly explained how analog FM radio broadcasting works: The signal takes three stages – roughly traced – before it arrives at the kitchen or car radio:
First, radio programming is produced in a studio. Second, if the broadcaster does not have its own network, a network operator such as Uplink takes over the program, converts it and – third – passes the processed FM signal to the operator of the respective antenna. The operator then broadcasts it. In return, the companies in stage two pay the antenna operators.
Freenet AG, or more precisely its subsidiary Media Broadcast, sold its 700 antennas at the end of last year. Until then, the company was a quasi-monopolist. Now there are several owners. But there is no sign of a price war. On the contrary, the new owners are now to charge significantly higher prices for the use of some of their antennas.
The liberalization of the antenna market has led nowhere. Nor could it: after all, every antenna forms a mini-monopoly in its transmission area. There is no alternative. And this now affects companies such as Uplink, which has been commissioned by broadcasters to ensure transmitter operation for them.
However, if Uplink cannot pay the prices of the antenna owners, it may lose these contracts – and then Media Broadcast would possibly be back in the game on stage two. This is precisely the scenario Schwarz-Schilling seems to be warning against.
By the way, according to participants, negotiations between transmitter network operators and antenna owners are deadlocked. So there are likely to be many more letters on the matter.