The Hong Kong government has put yet another obstacle in front of Ricky Wong's HKTV service. Since his application for a free-to-air licence was rejected, Wong has been refashioning his business and programming around mobile TV.
But now he's been told by the telecom and broadcasting regulator, Ofca, that because he's offering the service to more than 5000 households he needs a pay TV or free-to-air licence.
That sounds crazy. But, as legislator Charles Mok, who represents the IT sector, has explained on Twitter, it's about how the service “enters the home”. Wong has a mobile TV licence that he bought from China Mobile, but is accessing the home viewer via the set-top box.
Which according to Ofca makes it a fixed and not mobile service, and is why he apparently needs the licence. But this is a case of the regulator applying broadcasting rules to a telecom service.
Ofca, which is known to favour competition in telecoms and TV, is not the villain here, but Hong Kong's economic policy-makers who have done nothing about merging the city's telecom and broadcasting rules.
In light of the previous decisions to impede HKTV, it’s impossible not to conclude that the discovery of this loophole is just a lucky break for the Leung administration. No matter what Ricky Wong does, they seem determined to block him.
If this is a technicality, however, and the government genuinely wants to encourage a diverse media sector, then it will move quickly to change the law to allow HKTV to deliver its service into the home, thereby preserving 300 jobs and some HK$1 billion ($776m) in investment.
But don’t hold your breath.
The action meanwhile moves to the courtroom as Wong seeks a judicial review of the decision.
In a post on the Chinese language website, The House News, Mok accused the government of being hypocrites, having just re-established the Innovation and Technology Commission to advance hi-tech in the city. He wrote:
“I wonder, in the way the authorities have explained and administered the law, is it for the broad interests of the people, or to adhere to some other vested interest?”
UPDATE: Some reporting by the SCMP Thursday clarifies this a little.
The paper says the issue is about HKTV's use of the DTMB standard instead of another Chinese technology, CMMB, which was being used by China Mobile, from whom HKTV bought the spectrum. Legal and tech experts say the Ofca decision violates the technology-neutral principle.
Information Technology Federation honorary president Francis Fong Po-kiu said yesterday it was unclear who would win because the issue - whether DTMB could be applied to mobile television without further restrictions - had no precedent.
Separately, SCMP.com reports that the government is reviewing its telecom and broadcasting ordinances - a step that seems grossly overdue given the formation of Ofca two years by merging the old telecom and broadcast regulators.