Update on the expiry date for Temporary Covid-19 Short-term Restricted Service Licences

07 July 2020

Update on the expiry date for Temporary Covid-19 Short-term Restricted Service Licences (‘SRSLs’) and the licensing process for restricted service licence applications for drive-in events.

At the start of lockdown, we developed a new temporary licence product in light of the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. This licence was for those wanting to provide a radio service designed specifically to share information, news and updates about the Covid-19 pandemic with their community. All licences of this type were originally granted with an expiry date of 1 July 2020. Most licensees accepted our offer to extend the licences to 15 July 2020, while we reach our final decision on whether we will extend the licences again, or whether they should come to an end on 15 July.

This update follows our analysis of the representations received from licensees on whether and, if so, why they consider it would be appropriate for their licence to continue to operate for a period beyond 15 July. We also asked for representations on how long any extension period should be. We have analysed the representations submitted and reached a decision.

Our decision

All Temporary Covid-19 SRSL licences will, if the licence holder wishes, and subject to payment in advance of the appropriate fees, be extended for a period of 60 days from today, 7 July. They will therefore expire on 5 September 2020. A licensee can surrender their licence at any point if they want to stop broadcasting before 5 September. We will continue to accept new applications for Temporary Covid-19 SRSLs.

Ofcom receives a large number of Restricted Service Licence (‘RSL’) applications each year to broadcast at events and festivals and we reserve a part of the radio spectrum for such purposes. However, during the period of strict lockdown across the nations, events were cancelled and postponed. This led to RSL applications for those events being withdrawn or not submitted, and the spectrum we reserve for these events being unused. Bearing in mind our duty to secure optimal use of the radio spectrum, we introduced and granted these Temporary Covid-19 SRSLs using some of this spectrum usually reserved for broadcasting at events and festivals. The Temporary Covid-19 SRSLs were granted on a temporary basis for the specific purpose of providing a radio service designed specifically to share information, news and updates about the Covid-19 pandemic with their community.

We acknowledge that providers of these services consider that they are providing a valuable service to communities, and some of the evidence supplied by them supports this. However, lockdown is broadly now lifting across the UK, with any further restrictions being imposed on a more local level, and Ofcom is starting to receive RSL applications for events and festivals. This means there is now demand to use the spectrum that is designed to be reserved for events, and we need to free it up to use as designed. We therefore need to reinstate our policies and procedures for dealing with those, so that we can continue to make licensing decisions in line with our duties both to make optimum use of spectrum and to cater to a variety of different tastes and interests.

However, it normally takes us 60 days to consider RSL applications, and so we do not consider it necessary for Temporary Covid-19 licences to stop broadcasting before 60 days from the date of this statement.

Should there be a second wave of Covid-19, which leads to lockdown measures being tightened on a national level or specific to a region or location, we may, depending on the circumstances, consider making the Temporary Covid-19 SRSL licence product available to apply for again. If we do make it available to apply for again, we will aim to assess the application and determine if there is a suitable frequency available as quickly as possible.

Some Temporary Covid-19 SRSL licence holders have indicated that they would like to continue broadcasting, after we have come through the current crisis. This type of licence was introduced as a short-term and temporary measure, for a specific purpose and was never intended for long-term use. We published an update on our stated priorities in the area of community radio broadcasting in September last year. We will not be inviting applications for community radio services on analogue (FM or AM) for the time being as our priority is the implementation of the licensing framework for small-scale DAB. We expect significant benefit to be derived from small-scale DAB broadcasting in the future.

Drive-in events

As set out above, ordinarily we request at least 60 clear days between the date of receipt of an application for an SRSL and the event that the licence is needed for. Since 27 May 2020, we have taken a different approach to applications for drive-in services. We recognised that carefully planned drive-in events may be a way for people to come together and still observe social distancing. A challenge for event organisers is that the laws and guidance in relation to whether they may lawfully be held are different in different parts of the UK, and may also be subject to change, and with little advance warning, depending on the progress of Covid-19. In recognition of this, we agreed that we would accept applications for drive-in services that were planned sooner than 60 days from the application being received, aiming to process them as quickly as possible. We have managed to process some urgent applications within two weeks.

We are mindful that the laws and guidance around events are becoming clearer as the Governments across the nations issue more guidance as lockdown eases – some of which expressly include guidance about drive-in events. We are also mindful that we are now starting to receive applications for events and festivals other than drive-in services – which we have not said are also able to apply sooner than 60 days before their planned event. Giving an answer on applications sooner than 60 days places a significant administrative burden on us which will increase as applications for RSLs for other types of event increase. And we do not think it is appropriate to treat applicants differently based on if their event is a drive-in service or not, now we are beginning to see demand for RSLs for other types of events than drive-ins.

Because of this, we will be going back to requiring 60 days between the date an application is received and the start date of the event the licence is needed for. All policies and procedures for dealing with RSL applications will apply as stated in the applicable notes of guidance on our website for licences with a start date of 5 September or later. In practice, this means that from now on we will continue to aim to give an answer to applications made for licences beginning before 5 September, although we make no guarantees that we will be able to do so and we would ask applicants to make their applications as much in advance of their proposed start date as possible. Applications for any licences starting after 5 September must be made with 60 days’ notice.