Statement: Extending local DAB coverage
- Start: 28 January 2015
- Status: Statement published
- End: 25 February 2015
Local radio multiplex licences are granted by Ofcom to enable the provision of radio stations and other types of service (e.g. data) on the DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) platform. The holder of a local radio multiplex licence is responsible for, among other things, delivering coverage in the local area, and facilitating the provision of a range of radio services to listeners in that area. Local radio multiplex services carry both commercial radio services and BBC Local or Nations’ services.
There are currently 55 local radio multiplex licences in issue1. Most, but not all, parts of the UK are within the potential coverage area of at least one local radio multiplex service. In the Greater London area, there are three such local radio multiplex services. However, in Cumbria, Suffolk and parts of Scotland there is currently no local radio multiplex service (although listeners in these areas may be able to receive national digital radio services from the BBC, and/or national commercial radio stations from the national radio multiplex service provided by Digital One).
The first local radio multiplex services launched in May 2000, while the most recent such service, in North Yorkshire, commenced broadcasting in December 2014, bringing local DAB digital radio services for the first time to a potential 700,000 listeners.
Each local radio multiplex licence is advertised by Ofcom, and is for a service designed to cover a designated geographical area. This area is known as the ‘licensed area’. A local radio multiplex service will provide coverage to as much of its ‘licensed area’ as is reasonably practicable, but is unlikely to be available in every location. The area which a local radio multiplex service actually covers within its ‘licensed area’ is known as the ‘coverage area’.
Under a Framework Agreement signed in December 20142, Government, local radio multiplex licensees and the BBC have agreed to seek to improve the coverage of local radio multiplex services around the UK.
The proposed improvements are incorporated in what is called the Local DAB Expansion Plan, and entail:
- modifications to local radio multiplex service licensed areas, to more accurately reflect existing analogue radio station coverage areas;
- changes to local DAB frequencies in some places;
- modifications to 49 existing local DAB transmitters, and;
- 182 new local DAB transmitters.
The objective of the Local DAB Expansion Plan and the Framework Agreement is to extend and improve local DAB coverage so that it is broadly equivalent to the existing FM coverage of the largest local commercial radio service in each local area.
As part of the Local DAB Expansion Plan, Ofcom received applications from licensees requesting variations to their licences in accordance with the first two bullet points above.3
The requests were submitted in accordance with section 54A of the Broadcasting Act 1996, as amended by the Digital Economy Act 2010 ("the 1996 Act"). These statutory provisions require Ofcom to consult on any such requests before it makes a decision, and so a public consultation was held between 28 January and 25 February 2015.
Ofcom received nine responses to the consultation.
For the reasons set out in this document, and following consideration of responses to our consultation, Ofcom has approved each request.
Under section 54A of the 1996 Act, Ofcom may approve a request to extend the licensed area of a local radio multiplex service, and/or change the frequency of a local radio multiplex licence, only if, amongst other requirements which must be met,4 it is satisfied that doing so would not unacceptably narrow the range of programmes available by way of local digital sound programme services to listeners in the area for which, before the proposed variation, the relevant local radio multiplex service is required to be available.
In relation to the statutory criterion specifically, one respondent considered that Ofcom should be satisfied on the basis that “extending choice via DAB is the way forward” and “potential increase in choice is my only interest”. However, we note that the area and frequency changes will not directly result in any increase in choice for listeners, as the changes in themselves will have no impact on the range of services available and listeners will continue to receive the services they are able to receive currently.
One respondent argued that “the significant reduction of London I’s licensed area would mean a significant reduction in available programmes which are otherwise not adequately covered by Sussex or Kent multiplexes, nor carried on MuxCo Surrey”. While it is true to say that the change to the licensed area of the Greater London I local radio multiplex requested by the licensee, CE Digital Limited, would result in a reduction of the southern part of the licensed area, there will not be any change to the coverage achieved in that area by CE Digital and thus no change to the range of services currently available to listeners.
Mearns Community Radio Ltd asked whether Mearns FM would be “allowed on to DAB in Aberdeen as technically its [sic] not our coverage area” and added its view that “choice is already limited due to available frequencies in Aberdeen”. The statutory ‘test’ which Ofcom is required to apply when considering requests for area or frequency changes is whether or not the changes would narrow the range of local DAB services available to listeners in each current local area, and if the changes would result in such a narrowing, whether that narrowing is “unacceptable”. Whether or not a new service may or may not be carried on a particular local multiplex is thus not a relevant consideration.
Taking the above consultation responses into account, which were the only such responses which addressed the statutory criterion, it remains our view that the proposed changes to frequencies and areas will have no impact on the range of local digital sound programme services available to listeners in each current local area, as the changes will not result in any changes to the services being carried on any local multiplex nor any reduction in the coverage area of any local multiplex.
Ofcom is therefore satisfied that the statutory criterion has been met in respect of each variation request.
Provided the request meets the terms of the statute, the decision whether or not to agree to the request is at Ofcom's discretion.
In the consultation, we set out our policy for exercising this discretion in relation to each of the changes which have been requested as part of the Local DAB Expansion Plan. We said that, in line with the approach described in our April 2010 Statement on commercial radio localness regulation,5 we were likely to consent to requests where we considered each of the following criteria to be met:
- the change would be calculated to maintain or promote the development of digital sound broadcasting in the UK otherwise than by satellite;
- the licensee’s proposed coverage plans are satisfactory;
- the licensee has the ability to maintain the licensed service, and;
- there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect the rights and interests of stations carried on the multiplex and the rights and interests of other multiplex operators (and the stations they carry).
We further said that where a request for a licence variation required a change to the existing frequency, approval would be subject to the availability of a suitable alternative frequency and consideration of the knock-on implications to the frequencies of other multiplexes (and the stations they carry).
In relation to the first of these policy criteria, Mearns Community Radio Ltd and two other respondents considered that the changes would be calculated to maintain or promote the development of DAB, with one arguing that “the local DAB build out proposals will have a positive effect with available services increasing in many areas”. The Christian Broadcasting Council was also of the general view that the changes would help promote local DAB. Mr Steven Pitt, on the other hand, did not consider that the changes would promote DAB on the grounds that “coverage is poor”. We consider this point in more detail below under the second of our policy criteria. Other respondents chose not to comment on this policy criterion.
Taking these responses into account, and on the basis that we consider that the purpose of the proposed changes to areas and frequencies is to support the Local DAB Expansion Plan, which in turn is designed to promote the development of local digital sound broadcasting otherwise than by satellite, Ofcom is satisfied that the first policy criterion has been met in respect of each variation request.
The second of our policy criteria relates to coverage. The coverage plans of each of the local DAB multiplex licensees who requested an area and/or frequency change were published alongside the consultation at: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/information-for-industry/radio-broadcasters/coverage/dab-coverage-plans
As was noted in the consultation, these coverage plans show the coverage sought to be achieved under the Local DAB Expansion Plan, i.e. coverage which is broadly equivalent to the FM coverage of the largest local commercial radio services in each local area.6
It was this aspect of the consultation which elicited the greatest response, and we have considered carefully all of the comments received.
Two respondents expressed dismay that the proposed coverage plans in respect of the South Hampshire local radio multiplex service would not result in coverage extending to Petersfield7. As noted above, the coverage plans submitted in relation to the licence variation requests are designed to achieve coverage which is broadly equivalent to the FM coverage of the largest local commercial radio service in the relevant local multiplex area. In the case of the South Hampshire multiplex, the relevant FM services are Heart and Capital, neither of which is available8 in Petersfield. We also note that BBC Radio Solent’s FM coverage does not reach Petersfield. In light of the particular challenges of providing coverage of Petersfield as indicated by the comparative lack of FM coverage in the town, we do not agree that the lack of proposed local DAB coverage in Petersfield should lead us to conclude that the coverage plans in respect of the South Hampshire multiplex are not satisfactory.
Mr Anthony Batchelor said that FM and DAB reception in his home to the east of Devizes, in Wiltshire, was poor, and asked for this to be improved. We note that the coverage plans in respect of the West & South Wiltshire multiplex do not include proposals to improve DAB coverage in the Devizes area, but more significantly we note that there is no suggestion that the coverage plans are failing to meet the objective of achieving local DAB coverage which is broadly equivalent to relevant local FM coverage. We also consider that poor reception may be a result of other factors, such as the quality of the receiver(s) used or local topographical features which may affect the radio signal.
One respondent felt that the coverage proposed to be provided in certain parts of Sussex (especially East Grinstead), Kent and Surrey was inadequate. We recognise that the extent of local DAB coverage proposed for the Sussex multiplex as part of the Local DAB Expansion Plan may not replicate precisely the FM coverage of the relevant local commercial radio services, but consider that in this particular local area it is “broadly equivalent” and satisfactory. The proposed extent of local DAB coverage in each of southwestern Surrey and western Kent would appear to be greater than the FM coverage of the relevant local commercial services (Eagle Radio and Heart respectively).
For the reasons set out above, the responses to the consultation have not changed our view that the planned expansions of coverage within each of the proposed new licensed areas represent what we consider to be an appropriate balance between securing improved coverage while ensuring that each local radio multiplex licensee is able to maintain its licensed service. We therefore are satisfied that the second policy criterion has been met in respect of each variation request.
There were no specific responses to the consultation in relation to our third policy criterion whether a licensee has the ability to maintain its licensed service should the change(s) it has requested be approved. We therefore maintain the view, expressed in the consultation document, that we are satisfied that this policy criterion has been met in respect of each variation request on the basis that each licensee has stated that they are able to maintain their services, and that this ability should be enhanced by the fact that the expansion of local DAB coverage will be part-funded by Government and the BBC and the frequency changes will be funded by Arqiva, thus reducing the cost burden on the local multiplex licensees.
In considering the fourth criterion, Ofcom noted that each multiplex licensee applicant had stated its view that appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the rights and interests of stations carried on the multiplexes and the rights and interests of other multiplex operators (and the stations they carry). It was also noted that no programme service providers on any of the relevant local multiplexes had responded to the consultation to indicate any compromise of their rights and interests that may result from the requested changes to areas and frequencies. The Christian Broadcasting Council referred to a recent issue relating to the carriage of Premier Christian Radio on the national radio multiplex service, and suggested that the Government should consider whether additional statutory safeguards to protect service providers may be appropriate. As these points relate to changes to the current framework that Government may wish to consider, we have not taken them into account when considering the specific variation requests on which we have consulted. Ofcom is therefore satisfied that the fourth policy criterion has been met in respect of each variation request.
With regards to the additional policy criterion relating to the requests for frequency changes, the only comment from the consultation was that of one respondent who noted that a change of frequency would mean a need for consumers in these areas to reset their radios, but considered that this was “no problem” as DAB receivers frequently need to be reset. We therefore maintain the view, expressed in the consultation document, that in the context of the Local DAB Expansion Plan each of the proposed new frequencies will become available in the event that all of the proposed frequency changes are approved and, where appropriate, international agreement is reached. In addition, each requested frequency change is part of a revised frequency plan which is designed to reduce the levels of interference between local DAB multiplexes on the same frequencies and thus improve local DAB coverage overall. In respect of each of the eight requests for a frequency change, Ofcom is therefore satisfied in relation to this additional policy criterion.
Other issues raised by consultation respondents
We note that the majority of the points raised by the Christian Broadcasting Council in its response stem from its view that the licensed areas of existing local multiplexes do not match the coverage areas of many smaller FM local commercial radio services, and therefore DAB does not currently represent a suitable platform for these stations. Another respondent considered that the cost of the current DAB network “does not promote an accessible platform for small stations”.
This issue is fully recognised by both Ofcom and Government, with the latter providing funding for Ofcom to investigate potential solutions to enable smaller stations to broadcast on the DAB platform. We have recently invited applications for a number of trial small-scale DAB multiplex licences we intend to grant later this year; the lessons we learn from these trials will inform any recommendations we may make to Government in 2016 regarding the potential for small-scale DAB to be licensed on a longer-term basis. Details of our work on small-scale DAB can be found at: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/consultations-and-statements/category-2/small-scale-dab
One respondent argued that “the Scottish Borders has been left out once again” and expressed the hope that “there is some consideration into creating a local network in the future”. While these comments are not relevant to this consultation, as there are no proposals to change the area and/or frequency of any multiplexes which include the Scottish Borders in their licensed area (indeed, there is currently no such local multiplex), we are not aware of any current interest in providing a local radio multiplex service in the Scottish Borders area. However, we would note again our work on small-scale DAB as set out above, as this might be a more appropriate solution for this particular local area.
Finally, we also note Mr Rog Parsons’ opposition to the area and frequency changes on the grounds that DAB is “unpopular” and “a failure”, and should be abandoned. We consider that this view is relevant to a broader policy debate which is primarily a matter for Government rather than Ofcom, and therefore have not considered it in relation to the specific requests to change areas and frequencies which were the subject of the consultation.
Ofcom has therefore exercised its power under section 54A of the Broadcasting Act 1996 to grant each of the licence variations requested.
1 This number includes the licence for the Yorkshire local radio multiplex service, which is due to cease broadcasting in June 2015, and the licence for the Lincolnshire local radio multiplex service, which is due to commence broadcasting in June or July 2015, but does not include the licence for the Suffolk local radio multiplex service, which Ofcom advertised on 12 March 2015.
3 Details of the specific requests received by Ofcom are on p.5-6 of the ‘Extending Local DAB Coverage’ consultation document at https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/76134/local_dab_expansion_plan.pdf
4 Such as the need for an application from the licence holder, including a technical plan meeting certain requirements, and for a public consultation
6 These plans therefore do not necessarily represent the maximum extent of coverage which may be achieved by any of the local DAB multiplex services, as licensees can choose to improve their coverage at any time.
7 Petersfield is currently in the licensed area of the Surrey local radio multiplex service, but under the area changes would become part of the South Hampshire licensed area.
8 As determined by their Measured Coverage Areas.
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