Saturday, 11 May 2013

Are there really no new FM frequencies available?

A number of prominent voices on Teesside are calling for a new local commercial licence to be offered for the area following the departure of TFM to Tyneside. Among them is ex-Radio Tees presenter and Darlington PR guru Graham Robb who last month asked Ofcom to advertise a new licence for Teesside. The regulator responded by saying there were no FM frequencies available and that a new analogue licence was counter to the Government policy of working towards digital-only broadcasting.

This was only to be expected. Several years ago Ofcom announced that it would no longer be advertising any new local commercial radio licences. The main reason given then was also that there are no suitable FM frequencies vacant in the most populous areas of the UK.

It has always been the case that an alleged lack of frequencies has been the excuse of choice used by successive governments and regulators to justify rationing access to the airwaves. It was used to delay the launch of BBC Radio One and local radio in the sixties, the launch of ILR in the 1970s, and community radio for a long while thereafter. The laws of physics have not changed in the intervening years, just the political will to permit more stations to blossom, kicking the police transmitters out of the FM broadcast band above 100 MHz for example permitted the introduction of national and regional commercial services.

There now appear to be another couple of issues behind Ofcom’s reluctance to allow any expansion of FM radio.  Firstly the efforts of some in the industry to promote DAB digital radio created the idea of a “digital switchover” for radio, closing down the existing FM stations. I’m sure I’ll write more about this shortly, but for now it’s sufficient to point out that there is no need for a digital switchover date for radio as there was for terrestrial TV. In the case of television the same UHF band was to be used for digital TV as had been used for analogue channels since the launch of BBC2 in the 1960s. To make room for new digital services the old analogue transmitters had to be closed, and this was done in a planned and remarkably efficient fashion.  By contrast, there is no immediate alternative use for the FM radio band – it will not be used for DAB.  Further there are a great deal more radio receivers to replace in the average household than there were analogue TV sets – for a long time people will be happy to keep using their FM radios.  DAB has been called “a solution in search of a problem”.

Secondly, Ofcom staff plainly feel overstretched. Compared to the previous sector-specific regulator, the Radio Authority, the communications watchdog has very few individuals dedicated to dealing with radio broadcast issues. Decisions on radio licences are taken by a general Broadcast Licensing Committee rather than the former dedicated and quite expert Radio Licensing Committee. For a year or so until last summer the considerable spectrum demands of the Olympics were often quoted as taking priority call over staff time, then Ofcom’s political masters demanded a new focus - on local TV!  

On 3 April 2012 the local radio licence for Slough, Windsor & Maidenhead, held by Time 106.6, was re-advertised, with a closing date for applications of 3 July.  There were only two applicants, the incumbent and a local Asian community radio service. In the past major new licence awards, contested by up to half a dozen companies, have been decided in less than three months, but in this case the applicants (including the incumbent whose licence was due to run out in May) had to wait until 16 January this year – some six and a half months later – for the re-award to the existing licensee to be announced. Apologising for the delay one Ofcom official explained that the award decision was postponed until January because of the volume of business at the Broadcast Licensing Committee. In particular the BLC was required to give priority to awarding the new-fangled (and misconceived) local TV licences over dealing with these old local FM radio licences.

So is there really a frequency shortage? Or a shortage of will at the DCMS and Ofcom?

Of course the FM band is limited in bandwidth and frequency planning is a complex technical task if mutual interference is to be avoided. For example two stations serving the same area must be spaced at least 0.4 MHz apart. But the fact is that the allocation of FM band frequencies has been done piecemeal over some sixty years and, were we starting with a blank sheet of paper, we could be much more efficient in fitting in more stations.  In particular the band has effectively been carved up between the BBC and Ofcom with virtually all stations being allocated frequencies only in the relevant sub-band. An example of the inefficiency of this approach is that BBC Radio 2 transmitters have the frequencies between 88.1 and 90.2 MHz virtually all to themselves, as does BBC Radio 3 between 90.3 and 92.4 MHz, etc.. That’s more than 2 MHz of national bandwidth used to carry each single BBC service. By contrast Classic FM achieves near-national coverage using 2 MHz between 99.9 and 101.9 MHz, but, by careful Radio Authority planning, it shares this sub-band with dozens of other local and regional stations.

Were the BBC national FM channels to be re-planned a large number of lower-powered local transmitters could be interleaved between them, even freeing other frequencies for further national commercial FM services. These might be used for some of the quasi-national “regional” music stations which currently sit on hundreds of separate local frequencies, creating more opportunities.

But who is going to tell Ofcom this is a priority while we are all supposed to be switching to DAB?

1 comment:

  1. There are fm frequencies available for a commercial radio service for Teeside. The govenment and Ofcom are only interested in forcing broadcasters onto inferior and largely unwanted dab. I would suggest that Graham Robb or anyone else that was interested in running a radio service on Teeside resorted to piracy as the costs and penalties that may be incurred for doing so are vastly lower than the cost of dab!.