When originally set up, DAB radio had two national multiplexes (bundles) of radio stations (one with BBC stations, the other commercial) that were transmitted all across the UK, supplemented with local commercial multiplexes.
Due to frequency constraints – avoiding interference with frequencies already crowded with FM stations in the north and south – the national commercial multiplex was not licenced to operate in Northern Ireland, leaving us short of digital channels and making the DAB radio proposition considerably weaker, demonstrated by low public awareness of DAB in surveys.
A frequency – DAB channel 11D – has become free that will allow an additional multiplex to transmit across Northern Ireland, and the UK's national commercial operator Digital One has applied to extend into Northern Ireland.
Ofcom consulted during a four week window during February and March, and I read in the Irish News this week that Ofcom had approved Digital One’s licence extension to Northern Ireland, and an additional six transmitters (Divis, Carnmoney Hill, Londonderry, Brougher Mountain, Strabane and Limavady) will start to be built this year.
- Existing BBC national multiplex: Asian network, Radio 1, 1Xtra, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, 4 extra, Radio 5 Live, 5 Live Sports Extra, 6 music, Asian network, World Service
- Existing local commercial multiplex, operated by Bauer Digital Radio: Citybeat, Classic FM, Cool FM, Downtown Radio, Heat, Kiss, Q102.9, TalkSport, UCB UK + BBC Radio Ulster*
You can check your predicted DAB coverage on the Get Digital Radio website.
- The Digital One Network being extended to NI carries Smooth, Smooth 70s, Classic FM, Planet Rock, BFBS (GB rather than the NI station already on FM), TalkSport, Premier, UCB UK, Jazz FM, Absolute, Absolute 80s, Absolute 90s.
Also worth noting that other than a novel technical experiment a couple of years ago, BBC Radio Foyle is not available on DAB, even from the transmitters in the north west.
The Irish News quotes Ofcom’s head of digital radio Neil Stock:
“This move puts Northern Ireland on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom, giving radio listeners the opportunity to tune in to a far greater number of services.”
Digital One predicts its new services will include indoor coverage for 74% of households and 70% of the road network (suspect that's 70% of motorway and primary A roads).
An older coverage map from Arqiva (who run the transmitters) was included in one of Digital One’s proposal documents.
There were relatively few responses to Ofcom's consultation, but nearly all were in favour of Digital One's extension to NI:
- I think all DAB services should be extended as soon as possible to Northern Ireland.
- I beleive that if Ofcom did not grant a licence toDigital One it would be tatamount to Racial diacrimanation [sic]
- It is simply unfair that we in Armagh and the wider population of NI are not able to receive the range of digital stations that, not only GB residents, but those in Belfast can. May I add that it would surely be unthinkable for any other Government agency to suggest that many people are able to avail of the services already available to those who happen to live in major centres of population. It would be inaccurate to refer to a postcode lottery, since a lottery is chance, whereas digital radio coverage has been specifically planned and implemented to exclude hundreds of thousands of eagerly would- be listeners. Can we in Armagh and other areas please have equality of coverage?
Update - The ten new stations launched on 26 July.