More small digital stations could start next year

More local digital radio stations could start broadcasting next year, under plans announced today by the regulator.

A consultation has been launched by Ofcom to determine how it would license small-scale multiplexes. Small-scale DAB multiplexes are groups of stations which are available in a small geographic area. Most areas in the UK are covered by national multiplexes, such as those which carry BBC Radio 6 Music and talkSPORT, and local radio multiplexes with stations like Forth 1 and Lincs FM.

Small-scale DAB allows small commercial radio stations, community radio stations and entirely new operators to broadcast to a specific geographic area. Ten trials of small-scale DAB have been broadcasting since 2015 around the UK. The small-scale DAB trial in Norwich carries around 20 digital radio stations. The majority of these are digital-only, such as NME 1.

Ofcom has identified areas which could be covered by a small-scale DAB multiplex. Areas like Doncaster and East Cornwall would each be covered by a single multiplex, although East Cornwall has a smaller population over a larger geographic area.

Each area could be served by radio stations which are similar to analogue local radio stations, or completely new stations which specialise in a genre of music or a type of speech or talk radio.

The consultation includes several proposals for the licensing of small-scale DAB:

  • Radio stations on small-scale DAB will all be broadcast using DAB+ only
  • Capacity will be reserved for C-DSP (community) radio stations
  • Licenses for multiplexes will be awarded in batches rather than across the UK in one round
  • Small-scale multiplexes must launch within 18 months of being awarded a license
  • Multiplex owners will need to publish a ‘rate card’, but won’t need to obtain explicit consent from Ofcom to change the line-up of stations on the multiplex – as is currently the case

The consultation is also seeking responses regarding a new category of license for community radio stations. A C-DSP license has some similarities with analogue community radio stations, such as the delivery of “social gain”.

The small-scale DAB trials have been using open source software and computer technology to provide small stations with a low-cost route to digital broadcasting.

Graham Plumb, Ofcom’s Director of Spectrum Broadcasting said: “People increasingly prefer digital radio, and by enabling smaller stations to join this digital revolution, we can broaden the choice for local listeners up and down the country.”

Ofcom is inviting responses to its consultation by Friday 4th October and intends to start advertising licenses next year.