BRUSSELS — In what is considered as an historical evolution in the South Belgian radio landscape, the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel has issued a tender for both FM and DAB+ frequencies. This move reflects the region’s ongoing transition toward digital.
The last frequency allocation round dates back to 2008, when it offered nine-year licenses for the FM-dial in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. “The licenses fell due two years ago and today we’re opening up a call for both FM and DAB+,” said Nele Smets, CSA’s head of the radio department and assistant general manager.
In total, the South-Belgian FM environment has room for 82 frequencies for independent radio stations, six for “national” (covering Wallonia) or urban networks and four for provincial networks.
“In addition to the six DAB+ frequencies for the national and urban networks, for which simulcasting on FM and DAB+ is mandatory as part of their broadcast permit, we have five frequencies for new DAB+ projects and 12 multiplexes for independent radios: four in urban areas and eight more multiplexes for rural areas. Each local radio multiplex offers room for 12 to 18 stations,” explained Smets. “This new tender will have an impact on the radio landscape because radio frequencies are in demand.”
Contrary to the situation in Flanders, where local stations are not (yet) in the DAB+ plans, in Wallonia, the CSA together with independent radio association RNI+ [Radios Numériques Indépendantes+], succeeded in obtaining DAB+ architecture and financial support for local and independent radio.
“The government has budgeted 1 million Euros to finance the technical infrastructure and the transition to DAB+ for local radio,” said Smets, adding that, in 2016, RTBF and the private networks benefited from a 5.4 million Euro support for DAB+. “Today, apart from the investments, we have secured a place on DAB+ for local radio, offering far better coverage than FM today,” she said.
“Starting March 19, we will assess the admissibility of the entries, resulting in new, nine-year licenses that take effect July 15,” underlined Smets. “Unlike in the north of the country, where Norkring operates the DAB+ spectrum, in Wallonia the existing infrastructure remains property of the public service broadcaster RTBF. maRadio.be, a consortium with RTBF and private networks, including founding members Radio Contact, Bel RTL, Fun Radio and Nostalgie will handle the promotion of the technology.”
For the local stations, no definite launch date for DAB+ has been published, although preliminary work on multiplexes and the construction of a transmitter park is underway.
The tender was launched Jan 15 and has a deadline of March 16. To facilitate the process, the CSA has organized four information sessions for local stations and one for networks.
Systems integrator WNM also organized a seminar to inform radio stations about DAB+. “We invited our customers who are involved or interested in DAB+ to our headquarters in order to highlight benefits of the digital technology, exchange ideas, and also to offer best practices in the deployment DAB+,” said Maxime Van Gorp, WNM Sales and marketing manager.
In addition, on Feb. 12, the eve of the 2019 World Radio Day, maRadio.be gave an update on the evolution of DAB+ in Wallonia.
“In November last year, we started testing DAB+ for all of the RTBF’s stations and networks Bel RTL, Nostalgie, Contact, Sud Radio, DH Radio, Fun Radio, Antipode, Maximum, and Must FM,” said Francis Goffin, managing director of maRadio.be. “Today, with 17 DAB+ transmitters, we have achieved a coverage of 95 percent, and we expect to have full coverage of Wallonia by 2020.”
Goffin used the word “coopetition” to describe the joint efforts from public and private radio stations to promote DAB+ as prime radio medium. “But we still have quite a way to go — a recent market survey reveals that FM receivers still account for 80 percent of radio listening here, vs. 2 percent DAB+ — quite a challenge,” admitted Goffin.
“But the same survey found that some 40 percent of the interviewees knew about DAB+ and its possibilities.” Goffin had high hopes that a joint promotion campaign for DAB+ (with DAB+ receivers as prizes during World Radio Day celebrations) and a possible reduction of the VAT rate from 21 to 6 percent would encourage DAB+ receiver sales. “Europe’s directive that ensures inclusion of DAB+ receivers in new cars is another push in the right direction,” he added.
Representatives from both public and commercial radio stations attended the conference. “DAB+ is undoubtedly the most remarkable technical evolution for radio since the introduction of stereo on FM,” commented Olivier Arnould, station manager Radio Contact.
Both Etienne Dombret, newly appointed station manager with RTBF’s Classic 21 and Gregory Finn, director general of Fun Radio emphasized the importance of offering a slide show along with the DAB+ signal. “DAB+ will also drastically improve our coverage, which, today is somewhat poor in comparison to other networks,” added Finn.
“We introduced a fully digital on-air chain a decade ago,” concluded Kim Beyns, COO of NGroup (Nostalgie, NRJ, Chérie). “The ironic thing about it was the missing link between our transmitters and the audience — we’re happy that everybody is now teaming up in this inevitable transformation.”