How Ofcom’s helped to get hospital radio on to FM airwaves
Today we’re announcing a new approach to our licensing and spectrum rules, which will result in a range of ‘restricted’ radio services being able to take to the airwaves.
Our new flexible approach means restricted radio services – which typically cover small areas and can include hospital radio, drive-in movie soundtracks and services for events – will find it easier to access spectrum they need in order to broadcast.
These restricted services mainly broadcast in the AM and FM broadcasting bands, but we haven’t always had sufficient frequencies available to meet demand. But by making changes to our spectrum planning, we can identify small gaps in spectrum use – known as ‘limited coverage spectrum’.
Because this spectrum only enables limited coverage, it is not suitable for national, local and community radio broadcasts, but is particularly suited for restricted services which only need to broadcast nearby.
We have also simplified our licensing process to make it easier for these smaller services to get the licences they need to broadcast.
Before today’s announcement, a number of services took part in a trial to see how the new process would work. One of these was Stoke Mandeville Hospital Radio (SMHR), based in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. As part of the trial the station was able to broadcast on an FM frequency which has previously been unavailable to it.
The SMHR and Ofcom teams during our visit to the hospital.
We spoke to Simon Daniels, chairman and station engineer, to find out why the station took part in the trial and what the new process means for the team.
We were keen to take part in the trial to help make sure other hospital radio stations might be able to apply for an FM frequency in the future. “There has always been pressure on the FM band for space and some stations have struggled to get on to the FM frequency.
The main benefit of the FM frequency is, of course, crystal clear stereo reception. We used to be on AM and while this gave good coverage the quality at times was not great, especially at night.
The trial has gone very well for us and we wanted to work closely with Ofcom around how the reception at the increased power was working out for us. We invited one of the Ofcom engineers to the hospital site and we visited nearly every building together. The engineer took test measurements and all of this data is being used by Ofcom.
Simon continues, "My general observation during the trial has been two-fold. Firstly, there’s been a lot of very positive chatter in the hospital radio community about the possibility of more FM frequencies becoming available. Secondly, I feel like we have a much better relationship now with Ofcom than ever before and I think Ofcom can really see that we can contribute to listener choice."
"The next step for us is, all being well, to stay on our current trial frequency once the trial is over. Then, hopefully, we are considering if we may be able to add a low power FM transmitter at the other two Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS hospitals in our area - High Wycombe and Amersham. This would mean we could cover all three hospitals with the same service on the same frequency."
"For any hospital radio station thinking of taking a similar path to ours, I’d recommend having an early conversation with Ofcom, who will advise on what steps they need to take and on what may or may not be possible. This both saves time and money."
"We’ve always worked closely with Ofcom and made sure that we meet the high standards that are required for radio broadcasting. The trial has meant we provide a clearer signal across the Stoke Mandeville site on FM but we have also provided Ofcom's engineering team with really useful data covering a wide variety of buildings."