The UK is moving closer to the formal introduction of small-scale digital radio services. A consultation period ran until the end of February, inviting existing and potential local and community broadcasters to contribute comments and requirements prior to the advertisement of full licences.
The consultation has been published by the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS), the government department with responsibility for broadcast-related legislation. The introduction of small-scale DAB is already enshrined in law following the passing of the Broadcasting (Radio Multiplex Services) Act 2017, which started life as a Private Member’s Bill, introduced into the UK Parliament by Kevin Foster MP.
The DCMS is working with Ofcom, which allocates frequency spectrum, as well as licensing and regulating broadcast services. Ofcom awarded licences for 10 test multiplexes in April 2015, with trials using lower-cost, open source processing equipment taking place in Aldershot, Birmingham, Brighton and Hove, Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow, Greater London, Norwich, Manchester and Portsmouth.
The aim is to expand the reach of the approximately 400 commercial local and community radio services that broadcast to small, defined regions using analogue frequency bands, either MF or medium wave (MW). By using DAB or enhanced DAB+ technology, the government and Ofcom hope more broadcasters will have the opportunity to build wider audiences.
Both the DCMS and Ofcom intend that any new licensing should create a network of small radio stations, particularly in country areas.
Commenting on the consultation process, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport Matt Hancock, said: “Local radio is much loved and vitally important as a source of objective and in-touch local news. As more power is delivered locally, and as local newspapers struggle, local radio’s role in the community is becoming more and more critical. We are working hard with stations and listeners to make sure the rules are up to date, and give local radio the chance to use new digital technology to reach audiences, new and longstanding, old and young.”
Ford Ennals, chief executive of Digital Radio UK, which promotes and supports DAB in Britain, described small-scale digital radio as an important enabling technology with the potential to help hundreds of local and community stations. “This consultation is particularly important as there is much work still to be done to fully consider the best use of the limited spectrum available and how small-scale can work most efficiently alongside existing local and national DAB multiples to help maximise the benefits to listeners,” he said.
Among the services that took part in the test programme was Angel Radio, operator of the small-scale multiplex in Portsmouth. Its digital development manager, Ash Elford, commented: “After more than two years of successfully broadcasting local DAB to Portsmouth, it is good to see a process for the full-time licensing of many more local multiplexes for cities and towns starting to take shape.
“We hope that the success we have achieved so far with technical innovations and broadcasting smaller commercial, niche and community services can be replicated across the UK as soon as possible.”
With digital radio ownership estimated at more than 60% of UK households, DAB/DAB+ is regarded as the best platform to create a third tier of smaller multiplexes across the UK, slotting in below the existing national and regional digital multiplex networks. These use transmitters operating in VHF Band III, with blocks of frequencies in the range 211MHz to 229MHz (also known as blocks 10 to 13). In its report on the small-scale trials, Ofcom concluded that additional spectrum would be needed for any new services. Lower frequencies below 211MHz were used for the test project and this is now being considered as the long-term host for future open source stations.
Up to now this has been used primarily for business radio. Although many operators of such services have moved to other frequencies, some are still using this VHF sub-band II, covering blocks 7, 8 and 9. This required what the Ofcom report described as careful planning to prevent interference during the test, with some frequencies avoided altogether. It was concluded that the six sub-band II blocks identified would be able to support small-scale DAB across much of the UK.
Some of the test services used DAB+, which provides additional multimedia capabilities. Among these was an electronic programme guide (EPG) used by one multiplex to offer details of shows coming up on the station. According to both reception reports and anecdotal evidence, DAB+ provided satisfactory reception in “fringe” areas where it was not possible to decode DAB signals in the same multiplex.
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