Despite GCap carping, extra DAB spectrum will be welcomed

The momentum behind digital radio is growing steadily: 2 million digital (DAB) radios have now been sold in the UK and this Christmas is expected to be a bumper year for sales as prices of DAB units tumble.

So it is not surprising that Ofcom’s consultation on proposals to expand digital radio has been broadly welcomed by the industry. The proposals, set out in the regulator’s Radio Review, are based around the allocation of extra spectrum that will allow the creation of new local DAB multiplexes and, crucially, a second national commercial multiplex.

This move will expand the reach of digital radio by ensuring every part of the country is covered by a local multiplex. It will allow a number of local commercial stations and all the BBC’s local and regional stations to broadcast on DAB, and will also mean that the commercial stations that account for 95 per cent of commercial listening can move to digital.

Initiative UK head of radio Jonathan Barrowman believes releasing new spectrum is a “positive thing” as it will help some radio brands to develop a national footprint. He says: “There are brands trying to develop as national stations across a blend of platforms, such as digital television and the internet. More spectrum would enable brands that create new listening to grow and that would attract new revenue streams.”

Expansion would also increase listener choice and boost commercial radio’s ability to fight the BBC, says Guardian Media Group Radio programme director John Simons. He adds: “It is the democratisation of DAB and it will be available to all radio operators.”

But while a majority of commercial radio operators are rubbing their hands with glee at the potential new spectrum offers, GCap Media chief executive Ralph Bernard is considering the possibility of a judicial review.

Bernard was a lone supporter of digital radio in 1998 when he was at the helm of GWR Group. A joint venture between GWR, Talk Radio and NTL was the sole bidder for the first and supposedly only national commercial digital multiplex. Digital One broadcasts a number of stations, including Classic FM and Virgin.

While GCap welcomes additional local spectrum as a “positive step for digital radio and good news for listeners”, it says it is “considering its position” on the national multiplex.

Bernard says: “As the commercial radio catalysts for DAB digital radio, we have made considerable investment in its growth in the UK. While we note Ofcom’s commitment to ensuring a broad range of services which will be separate and distinct from those on Digital One, we are not at this stage ruling out the possibility of a judicial review.”

The majority of the industry is keen for the new opportunities this will bring, but many observers see Bernard’s point. Simons says: “He does have a point. When he was awarded the licence in the embryonic stage of DAB, he invested a lot of money in it and was a lone voice. But you can’t stop progress.”

There is also a feeling that a second multiplex would not harm Digital One, as it would have to diversify with new formats and brands. EMAP Radio group managing director Dee Ford says that if it is used properly, the new multiplex will reignite consumer interest in digital radio.

She explains: “I think a second national commercial multiplex, combined with the new local spectrum, will really kick-start digital radio again. We will see it go up a notch.”

Ford also points to areas such as the need to make digital radios a standard feature in new cars, adding: “Manufacturers will feel more confident if consumers demand it – and they will if digital radio, through a new multiplex, offers them new things.”

The consultation on the new spectrum ends on November 16 and there is already a feeling that operators are gearing up for competition to win the new multiplex. If industry feeling is correct and the second multiplex gets the green light, battle will commence at the end of next year.

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