Saturday, April 13, 2013

Extra DAB radio stations coming to Northern Ireland - Digital One licence extended

Provision of DAB radio in Northern Ireland has been weak since its inception.

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*
* Since the BBC national multiplexes transmit on the same frequency right across the UK, the channels on each have to be identical. So local BBC stations like Radio Ulster are carried on local commercial multiplexes. Since different multiplexes use different transmitter sites, this explains why DAB coverage for Radio Ulster and Radio 5live are not identical in Northern Ireland.

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.
There is some overlap – Classic FM, Kiss, TalkSport and UCB UK – between the Digital One national commercial multiplex and the existing Bauer local commercial multiplex. There is also an anomaly that local station U105 has so far avoided the expense of entering the local DAB market, even though another UTV-branded company operates DAB multiplexes in England.

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.


Anonymous said...

"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"

FM Radio is broadcast on the VHF Band II range 87.5 MHz - 108 MHz and DAB is broadcast on a completely different frequency range in VHF Band III.

So overcrowding in the "FM" band is totally irrelevant to the frequencies available with respect to the Digital One not previously being licensed in Northern Ireland.

Anonymous said...

In fact the reason why Digital One is now extending service into Northern Ireland is because the Digital Economy Act of 2010 deregulated the commercial multiplex allocation for Northern Ireland.

Digital One therefore applied for a license to extend service on those frequencies and after the usual sham public consultation, then awarded the service to Digital One, who was, as far as I am aware, the only applicant.


Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Thanks for the clarification. So why was NI originally excluded from the national multiplex licence? It could only have been for some kind of (non-FM) frequency unavailability?

Anonymous said...

As far as I can tell the original reason appears not to be because of a lack of frequency but because of respecting international frequency planning protocols.

The first national commecial DAB multiplex awarded to Digital One is transmitted on block 11D.

ROI had some rights to use all of VHF Channel 11 under certain conditions, and in fact only used it once for a brief period of low power transmission of RTE2 from Kippure.

Until the ROI had formalized its plans for the future use of the Channel 11 frequency range in the post analog TV era, it was therefore not possible to start broadcasts on 11D at the time that the Digital One licence was awarded.

The ROI's intentions of the use or not of the Channel 11 frequencies have at some point in the last few years have been made official announced in consultation with neighboring states inluding UKofGB&NI.

Now because of the Digital Economy Act of 2010, OfCom now has the legal authority to extend the licence of the first commercial multiplex to include Northern Ireland and not have to offer it as a separate licence.

Section 35 at

which removes the legal restriction from the Broadcasting Act of 1996 which prevented the geographic enlargment of the a licence already issued for the national commercial multiplex(es)


After section 54 of the Broadcasting Act 1996 insert—
“54AVariation of radio multiplex licences: frequency or licensed area

(1)OFCOM may, if the requirements of subsections (3) to (5) are met, vary a national radio multiplex licence by extending the area in which the licensed service is required to be available.


So because of international cooperation agreements on frequency planning and legal restrictions on the originally issued licence, even though the frequencies were not being used, they could not be used for Digital One until now ;+)

Now you may appreciate why often it takes years or even decades for anything to get done at the national or international level ...

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...


seatzie said...

when DAB originally launched here I queried with the UK DAB people why we were getting shafted, they said RTE had a hold on some of the frequencies used for DAB here (they used different TV frequencies to us I believe which may have infringed?) so until that stranglehold was released there was no we got stuck with FM on DAB basically.....thank goodness this has changed can't wait for Team Rock Radio and Planet Rock this Friday!

Anonymous said...

I live in Warrenpoint. Would anyone know if there are any plans to improve the DAB coverage in South Down, eg from the Camlough Transmitter outside Newry or the Rostrevor Mountain transmitter? Still no Radio Ulster or commercial stations on DAB in this area unless one goes to great lengths, eg climb a mountain ! Is the lack of DAB coverage related to the fact that both of aforementioned transmitters are only Freeview Light, that is the fact that those in control have no plans to spend more money upgrading the TV services also means they have no plans to spend money on the DAB coverage?