UK Regulator Further Extends Trial of Small-Scale DAB

In 2015, UK regulator Ofcom licensed and co-ordinated a trial with a new approach to DAB radio broadcasting which it called small-scale DAB.

Ten trial licences were awarded to parties in different areas of the UK who wanted to operate a small-scale DAB multiplex. The trial multiplexes covered a relatively small geographical area compared to local and national DAB multiplexes. The small-scale DAB trials keep costs low by making use of relatively inexpensive transmission equipment and the freely available ‘open-source’ software. 

Ofcom has proposed to further extend the licences of the ten trial small-scale DAB multiplexes. The regulator says the trials “… have proved to be successful. There are currently around 150 community and small commercial radio services broadcasting digitally on the ten trial multiplexes. By further extending the trials, these radio services will continue to be available to listeners. Ofcom will also be able to continue gathering useful information from the trials, to help inform the development of a framework to enable small-scale DAB multiplexes and services to be licensed throughout the UK under a new licensing regime, on a non-trial basis.

“All the current trial small-scale DAB multiplex licences will eventually be replaced by competitively awarded licences under the new licensing framework. We expect that interested parties will have the opportunity to apply for a small-scale DAB multiplex licence in 2019, depending on the timeframe of the new legislation. At that stage, all interested parties, including the current trial licensees and those not taking part in the trial, will be invited to apply and demonstrate how they think they meet the statutory criteria for this new framework.”

Ofcom proposes to extend the trial licences until 31 March 2020, but with the option to terminate the licences at an earlier date in the event that a non-trial licence in the same area has been awarded and the service is ready to launch. During this period, no new trial licences will be awarded.

Ofcom has started the licence variation process with the individual trial multiplex licensees. Their current licences will expire between 30 April and 29 August 2018 if they are not extended. There is no new funding from the UKGovernment or Ofcom to support trial licensees with ongoing running costs.

The extension to 2020 is the second granted by Ofcom following its 2016 report into small-scale DAB. In that report, the UK regulator concluded that the trials had successfully achieved all three of its aims:

  • The technology used generally worked well and reliably, and technical problems identified were resolved. 
  • Coordination between service providers had generally been very effective. Across the ten trial areas, nearly 70 unique radio stations were carried, the majority of which wee new to DAB.
  • The ten trial operators gained extensive practical experience of small-scale DAB, and shared their experiences and technical knowledge with each other. Some operators were also directly involved in innovating further technical enhancements to the small scale concept, with the trials have prompting wider market interest.

Ofcom also looked at the availability of frequencies for small-scale DAB and conculded that “… when added to the spectrum available amongst the UK’s existing licensed DAB multiplexes, there is sufficient spectrum to support at least one small-scale multiplex in most parts of the UK.”