Digital Radio
DAB
An Explainer on Digital Radio and the UK’s Small-Scale DAB

An Explainer on Digital Radio and the UK’s Small-Scale DAB:

How British Independent and Community Radio Stations Can Access It

November 30th, 2023

Progress is relentless and no less can be said for radio technology. Once there was only AM and FM, but now independent and community radio stations have access to two other mediums: digital and internet. Both of which have made it significantly easier for stations to broadcast to their communities.

This blog post will be primarily focused on digital radio and how community radio stations based in the United Kingdom can begin to utilise it. We’ll begin with a discussion regarding the differences between digital and analogue radio. Next, will be another discussion this time about the differences between digital and internet radio. We’ll then explain DAB with a particular focus on small-scale DAB. The last section will be some tips for how independent radio stations can access small-scale DAB.

Let’s dive into it!

Digital vs. analogue radio

Put simply, digital radio uses digital signals to transmit and receive information across the radio spectrum. This differs from traditional radio broadcasting technology (AM and FM) which uses analogue signals.

Digital radio has a number of benefits over its traditional counterpart. The first benefit worthy of mention is the superior sound quality it provides. While crackling and hissing sounds are common to the analog format, digital radio eliminates these pesky sounds.

The second benefit is an increase in the number of supported radio services for a given radio spectrum. This means more radio stations can broadcast digitally in a given geographical region than otherwise could be supported using AM or FM. The reason for this, is digital radio employs a method known as multiplexing. A multiplexer allows multiple digital signals (i.e. radio stations) to be combined into a single signal or frequency.

The last benefit we’ll mention here is the additional content on top of the audio that can be broadcast when using digital radio. Such content could include the metadata (i.e. name, artist etc) for the currently playing song, weather forecasts or even headlines for the latest news events.

Let’s now discuss the differences between digital and internet radio.

Digital vs. internet radio

As we have seen above, digital radio has some important differences to its analogue equivalent. However, we one compares digital radio with internet radio, it becomes apparent that the latter technology is the most dissimilar. Internet radio as the name implies uses the internet as the medium to broadcast - or more aptly, stream - audio content.

Arguably, the crucial difference between the two is accessibility. Digital radio has to be transmitted across a radio frequency from an actual location. Meaning a potential listener must be physically close enough to the signal to receive it. Digital radio can of course be configured to cover geographical regions the size of whole countries. But there are hard limits to how far coverage can extend, this means a listener located in Australia cannot listen to a digital radio station from the United Kingdom. However, the same Australian listener could listen to that British station if it was an internet radio station. In this regard, there are no hard limits for the listeners of internet radio. They can listen to any station across the globe, resulting in an effectively limitless selection.

The differences in accessibility aren’t all in internet radio’s favour though. To access internet radio, a listener must have a stable internet connection. In today’s modern world this is hardly an insurmountable problem. But it does result in a financial cost for the listener, as most internet access must be paid for. Listeners of digital radio suffer no such problems, as its entirely free to access (assuming you already have a digital radio receiver).

With the differences between digital radio and other formats covered, let’s now explain the subset of digital radio best suited for British community radio stations.

What is small-scale DAB

Digital audio broadcasting (DAB) is one of the many digital radio standards utilised throughout the world. It is defined, supported and promoted by the WorldDAB organisation. It is the dominant standard in Europe and as of 2022, 55 countries were using it for their digital radio broadcasts.

Small-scale DAB is a new initiative pursed by the United Kingdom government and its industry regulator: OFCOM. Its purpose is to broaden the existing DAB spectrum to a new group of smaller broadcasters.

Prior to the inception of this initiative, the existing DAB multiplexes covered areas ranging from whole cities to the entire country. Small-scale DAB as the name suggests covers vastly smaller areas, where a single multiplex may only cover one town or a specific part of a city.

Each small-scale multiplex can support around 20 radio stations. With the target stations by necessity, being community focussed owing to the geographical size of the multiplex coverage. Further, small-scale DAB is more affordable than standard DAB as the transmission hardware is cheaper and the software needed is open-source (i.e. free). This all amounts to another broadcast medium becoming available to community and independent radio stations.

How British independent and community radio stations can access it

Before we proceed, please note this section only applies to radio stations located in the United Kingdom. If your station is located outside of the UK, you’ll unfortunately have to do you own research about how your station may utilise digital radio.

Check your local area

The first step in this process is checking whether your local area is covered by an existing multiplex licence. If you click on this link it will provide a list of both the areas where licence applications have been submitted as well the areas where licences have been awarded.

If your local area is covered by an existing licence, you’ll need to check with the multiplex licence operator whether there’s spare capacity for your radio station. The above link should provide all the information needed to contact your local operator. The operator can then explain the finer requirements for the next stages of this process.

Apply for a CDSP licence

One stage of the process you’ll definitely need to complete is applying for a CDSP licence. A Community Digital Sound Programme (CDSP) licence is statutory required for any radio station who intends to broadcast using small-scale DAB.

Some further points should be stressed here. Firstly, to apply for a CDSP licence there must a multiplex operation (either existing or open to applications) in your local area. Secondly, even with a granted licence, your station is not automatically entitled to broadcast on the applicable multiplex. That must be arranged separately, the licence merely makes your broadcast legal.

There are various requirements a radio station must satisfy first before a licence will be granted. A detailed list of these requirements can be found here. However, two key requirements of note are 1) the station must deliver ‘social gain’ for the community and 2) the station must not be run for ‘financial gain’.

As always, keep it locked!

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