Speaking at this week's Radio Festival event (in Salford), broadcast regulator OFCOM announced the imminent trial of a new type of digital radio (DAB) license aimed at small community radio stations gaining access to digital broadcasting.
They outlined plans to invite existing community radio broadcasts to take part in a nine month trial which would see the setup of small scale DAB multiplexes operating with a limited range (presumable to cover just a town or community). OFCOM have stated that they will release more details in the coming weeks but we know already that they propose to select a small selection of community station to take part in the trial and that OFCOM will provide the transmission equipment for the trial (but not the installation or operating costs).
But is this something to be excited about?
The answer is a very big yes, this is exactly the same process OFCOM went through ahead of making small scale licenses available on both FM and AM before that. The difference between FM and DAB is that OFCOM can only license a single station to a frequency on FM which severely limits the number of licenses they can issue and hence makes obtaining access to FM very difficult. By contrast, DAB multiplexes can provide carriage for several services within a single license which should make them far more accessible.
Couple this with OFCOM's remit to expand broadcasting opportunities to the community and it seems likely that the trial scheme could be the forerunning to an entirely new tier of community radio where a local DAB multiplex carries community stations, hospital radio and of course School Radio.
It might even be possible for Schools to apply to run a small DAB multiplex providing broadcast medium to all the schools in a given area.
Talking with OFCOM representatives on Monday, it became clear that they feel that rapid action is required to address the increased reliance on IP delivered services and in particular, to avoid a generation of radio listeners not exposed to traditional broadcasting methods. Obviously we were quick to highlight the many potential benefits such a scheme could offer to schools and the next generation of broadcasters.
The FM community radio licenses took 2-3 years to go from trials to licensed stations and required an act of parliament to write it into law, we are hoping that the small scale DAB project is a little more rapid but either way, it represents an exciting opportunity for School Radio that was not on the horizon seven days ago.
We will continue to work with OFCOM on behalf of School Radio customers and keep you posted to events as they unfold.