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Small-Scale DAB Prepares for UK Rollout

Licensing plan announced by regulator Ofcom — but start delayed by coronavirus

LONDON — Plans have been finalized for small-scale DAB radio licensing in the United Kingdom, following several years of trials.

Ford Ennals is CEO of Digital Radio UK.

Media regulator Ofcom describes small-scale DAB as “a new way of transmitting digital radio that uses advances in software and low-cost computer technology to provide a flexible and inexpensive approach to the terrestrial broadcast of digital radio services to a relatively small geographic area.” The concept was first tested in 2012 by Ofcom engineer, Rashid Mustapha MBE, who initially trialed it by installing a digital radio transmitter on a Brighton rooftop.


Ofcom engineers commission small-scale DAB trial equipment. Credit: Future Digital Norfolk

The regulator says the new licenses will be made available in batches, starting with 25 local areas across the U.K., including five cities such as Cambridge and Glasgow where trial broadcasts are already underway. The second round will be for northwest England and northeast Wales.

However, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic means there is no date for this licensing process to commence. Ofcom says it will now wait to publish the first advertisements until “a majority of relevant stakeholders consider that they would be able to participate fully in the licensing process.”

It has also not yet concluded full international agreements for the use of spectrum in London and southeast England, which means these areas will not be included until the fourth round of licensing, at least 18 months into the program.

Based on responses to its consultation, the regulator also decided not to require all program services carried by small-scale multiplexes to be broadcast using the DAB+ standard, as had initially been proposed.

The CEO of Digital Radio UK, Ford Ennals, welcomed Ofcom’s statement. “This is good news for radio and good news for listeners, as the expansion of small-scale DAB gives listeners a wider range of smaller stations available on DAB and gives small local stations a path to a digital future,” he said.


A typical small-scale DAB installation at Future Digital Norfolk. Credit: Future Digital Norfolk

“Following the success of the fantastic range of unique and fresh local commercial and community services in the 10 trial areas, we can expect to see many hundreds of local stations joining radio’s digital revolution across the U.K.”

Femi Bankole, the founder of Cosoro Radio, an Afrobeat station based in Manchester, which broadcasts via four small-scale multiplexes, believes that being on DAB has brought more people to the Afrobeat genre.

“Small-scale DAB has provided a richer and scalable platform for Cosoro Radio to extend its reach and introduce the genre to its new listeners, especially the young generation,” Bankole said.

DAB now accounts for 41% of all radio listening in the U.K., and 70% of digital listening. The recent launch of chill-out music station Smooth Chill on national DAB+ means that more than half of all national commercial digital radio stations in the U.K. are broadcasting in DAB+.

There are now 41 national digital commercial stations in total, with 21 broadcasting in DAB+.