Wednesday, 19 June 2013

DAB+ would open up radio to local operators and prevent further monopolisation of commercial radio

The Government’s decision not to push ahead with DAB+ is not an answer that will promote local radio. It may even lead to the demise of some local radio stations. I have written to the minister to express my concerns.

It was the plan of the previous Government to push ahead and update the current DAB system of digital broadcasting to DAB+. This Government has not reversed the policy, but it has certainly taken lost the impetus. DAB+ offers a much wider bandwidth accomodating greater content from more radio stations.

Currently, a huge proportion of the DAB bandwidth is taken up by the big players in radio; DAB+ would increase that market space and allow more competitors in. In Hyndburn and Rossendale local radio stations 2BR and The Bee Radio are opposed to the governments rollout of plain DAB because it would enshrine the monopoly of the big broadcasters who control 72% of commercial radio consumption. Indeed it is their view that neither of these stations could exist in their current form if the Government enforced a rollout of DAB rather that the wider spectrum of DAB+.

The problem for local radio is the growing sales of DAB only equipment. Whether over the counter DAB radios or crucially factory fitted in-car DAB radio's. Digital only and lacking FM they threaten to strangle local's radios means by which to broadcast and be received. In other words a diminshing audience.

DAB+ offers the capacity for more stations, and a greater sound quality. It is an almost inevitable development that one day radio will be broadcast as DAB+, because it is better than what we currently have. It is a technological development that allows us to open up the media market and that could facilitate good quality, local-focused radio. It is technology that can only be artificially resisted for so long, and if we put effort into going ahead with simple DAB, we will be left with a stop-gap system that would eventually come under pressure to change anyway.

Moreover the international direction of travel is clearly in favour of DAB+, with countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Australia already having launched DAB+ broadcasts. The UK should be at the forefront of this digitisation drive, but must do it in a way that protects, and indeed promotes the interests of local stations.

People are in favour of digitising the radio networks, but it must be done right. New research undertaken by the Government has found that people prefer digital radio and see it in an incredibly positive light. 92% of people involved in the research were highly satisfied with their digital radios, and 4/5 preferred it to analogue and 85%would strongly recommend it to other people. This is a solid bedrock of public opinion on which to build.

DAB+ would provide the benefits to the consumer of digital radio, whilst preventing an enforced monopolisation of the radio spectrum. As things stand, the two largest radio operators control 72% of commercial radio consumption, and by delaying the market-expanding possibilities offered by DAB+ we continue to allow this limited market to be dominated by the large companies.

After only 2 years, Rossendale Radio in Haslingden went into administration and eventually ceased broadcasting. I remember at the time speaking with people involved in the station about the Government’s decision not to extend the DAB frequency, and the threat that it posed to local radio. DAB+ is the future for local radio, and offers a huge opportunity for community groups to access the broadcast market at low cost.Hopefully Rosssendale Radio will be back up and running soon but it's survival may be restricted by lack of access to DAB.