Tuesday 27 August 2013

Regional DAB switch-off and digital radio in the UK

"@RadioToday Digital Radio News: Regional DAB turned off in West Midlands"

Well, is this a good thing or a bad thing? I was puzzling over this whole setup for quite a while, as I'm very disillusioned already over the state of DAB and digital radio in the UK. Firstly I suppose a little bit of background to it. We all know that in certain areas the use of FM frequencies is tight, there are far too many for the old analogue spectrum to handle and since each station has to keep a 'gap' between the other (to avoid interference overlap, etc) then you start to run out of frequencies available for everyone to use. As an example, take a drive around London, and just seek through the radio frequencies, you'll find the radio stops every .3 or .4 steps and finds a new station. That's the problem. So in very lucrative areas there are no further frequencies available. The big radio firms in the UK are also wanting to expand their empire and go national, as the BBC has been able to do easily for many years, and so the advent of DAB/digital radio offered such an option.

Regional multiplexes of DAB transmitters could be linked and provide the option for a radio station to exist nationally quite easily, and with the ability to fit many stations within a single mux it also allowed a much larger number of channels to become available.

It sounded like the perfect answer to the UK radio industry. Except that the operation of those DAB transmitters/mux's would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, which therefore meant that only the biggest of big boys in the radio industry could get to operate the MUX's. So that did happen, and the big groups such as MXR (A combination of Chrysalis, GMG, Capital and Choice. There were a large number of commercial big boys all going for DAB and getting the infrastructure in and operational.

A good explanation of DAB and what the regional turn-off of DAB means is written here " @RadioToday: Digital Radio News: Regional DAB turned off in West Midlands radiotoday.co/14X9Lz5 "

However I'm still not convinced the current model of DAB and digital radio in the UK is a good thing.

I have to say, I have a vested interest, I'm with the 'little guys'. The smaller independant radio companies (Very very few) and the even more minority group, community radio. To be honest, my vested interest is with the community stations I work with, and on many occasions I'm asked "When can we go to digital/DAB". And unfortunately my answer is always the same. Only when we can make a huge profit and do some serious cap-ex.

I have questioned this time and time again, and the answer is always the same. You speak to the regulator (Ofcom) and advise on the DAB/Digital licensing, which in itself isn't a huge expense (And isn't huge for Community stations on FM/AM either). However you then have to arrange to actually transmit on a digital MUX (Multiplex). And that you do by contacting the local regional mux operator (Generally Arquiva, Capital, Chrysalis, etc), and that is where the problem comes in. They're a commercial company, working to a profit and making profit. So you get quoted between 4 and 5 figure sums and then you have to go into rental charges and more. Terrible when its for a community station that barely can pay for the building it runs from, never mind paying staff, expenses, kit, etc. To give it contrast, if you setup a community station to broadcast on FM you can use your own transmitter, your own transmitter site and equipment, making yourself totally self-contained and purchasing the transmission kit yourself. It could be as low as a 3 figure sum if you use the basic kit to get up and running. That plus the relevant fees to regulatory bodies, etc, and you're running in a few 1,000's which is generally within reach.

So my view on DAB and digital radio in the UK is still a very pessimistic one. To get full scale take-up of it by the public, it will need you to be able to get EVERYTHING you do now on analogue radio. At the moment this just isn't possible, and doesn't even look remotely feasible in the medium term. So something has to happen.

I'd love to hear what you think about this, whether you're in the radio industry, part of the licensing or just generally a radio listener, please leave comments and thoughts!


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