Commercial radio fights for slice of FM spectrum

With the promise of an FM band audit, UK commercial radio must fight its corner or be squeezed by the BBC and ‘not-for-profit’ initiatives.

For some years now UK commercial radio stations has been seeking a reappraisal of the way the FM band is used. The FM spectrum is a valuable, scarce resource that has been distributed in a piecemeal fashion against a background of improving technology.

Half a century ago, the demand for spectrum and frequency planning requirements was hugely different. The BBC was the only UK broadcaster and, inevitably, the main driver of broadcasting policy. Perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all.

At the Commercial Radio Companies Association (CRCA) congress in June, and in the subsequent Government paper Regulating Communications: the Way Ahead, Culture Secretary Chris Smith promised a spectrum audit. Now that it’s about to get underway, what will happen, and who and what will influence the outcome?

The Radio Communications Agency is in the process of publishing a tender to frequency planners – NTL, Marconi, JFMG and the like – to provide an independent report examining the use of FM in Leeds and London.

In both cities the FM resource is seen as exhausted. The use of almost all band III FM by all users will be examined rigorously to see whether they are making optimum use of it, if allocations are too generous or whether moving band positions might provide additional space.

Separately from this technical exercise, the Government created a policy group on December 2 for interested parties.

The Community Media Association (CMA) will opine that neither the BBC nor local commercial stations provide true community radio and recovered spectrum should be used for small-scale “not-for-profit” initiatives.

The BBC will resist any attempt to transfer BBC local radio’s FM coverage to other broadcasters. It will use the “universality of coverage” argument to try to prevent space in the part of the band occupied by its four national FM services from being used. If true to form, the broadcaster will come up with reasons why any spectrum found should be used for more BBC services.

For our part, we will point out that many small-scale local commercial radio services provide “community” broadcasting. We are proud of the valuable contributions made by small, local commercial stations to the economic, commercial and social life of the areas they serve.

We are therefore bound to ask for evidence that listeners want what the CMA has in mind and to query what “not for profit” means. We will also seek the provision of new commercial services within the spectrum used by BBC Radios 1 to 4, as happens in the part of the band used by Classic FM.

Paul Brown is chairman and chief executive of the Commercial Radio Companies Association

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