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UK Looking for Opinions on Relicensing of DAB Radio Licenses

Office of Communications wants to refine the licensing process of two national radio licenses

John Whittingdale
John Whittingdale

The United Kingdom’s Office of Communications is asking for comments about its plan to relicense the country’s two national commercial radio DAB multiplex licenses.

Ofcom is hoping to gather opinions from stakeholders about different roadmaps to renew the national commercial digital radio licenses held by Digital One Limited and Sound Digital Limited. Together those organizations provide access to 40 free-to-air commercial digital radio stations across the nation.

Digital One Limited launched in 1999 and carries three national analog commercial services — Classic FM, TalkSport and Absolute Radio — as well as 17 other services, reaching around 91% of UK homes. Sound Digital Limited launched in 2016 and currently reaches 83% of UK homes. The Digital One license is set to expire in November 2023 while the Sound Digital license will expire March 2028.

The aim of the review is to seek views and collect information in an effort to better inform decisions about the licensing process, said John Whittingdale, OBE MP, minister of State for Media and Data for the UK, who posted a wide-ranging document on the issue. It describes the policy and regulatory issues, lists policy options for consultation and sets out a series of key questions.

He said the goal is come up with a plan that will clarify that the relicensing process for these national radio multiplexes works in the best interests of the commercial radio industry and audiences across the UK.

“We believe it is appropriate to give consideration to the policy on the licensing and renewal of the national DAB multiplex licenses to give the commercial radio operators who use these networks clarity and certainty about the future of the platform and ensure there is no disruption of the services broadcast on the network,” he wrote.

The department is seeking views on three potential options: one, to allow the two licenses to expire and be re-advertised through an open competition every 12 years; two, to amend the Broadcasting Act of 1996 and allow both companies to renew their license until December 2035; or three, amend the broadcasting act so that both licenses have a matching expiry date of December 2030.

A longer renewal term would provide national broadcasters and license holders with stability that in turn would help support the government objective to support a listener-led transition of radio to digital, he said.

A shorter license renewal term would harmonize the expiration dates and allow for a more strategic approach to be taken in regard to the use of broadcast spectrum by commercial radio in the 2030s; for example by allocating more spectrum to national, local or small scale DAB services.

The department is also seeking views on other issues such as whether a renewed license should include obligations for a higher level of DAB coverage, and whether in offering a renewal to 2030 or 2035 there is need for a mechanism to protect stations that are carried on either multiplex from future carriage fees charged by the national commercial radio multiplex operators.

The review period is open now and runs until Sept. 14. Responses can be sent to [email protected].