My response to the SSDAB Consultation.
The DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) have been running a consultation on the licensing of SSDAB (Small Scale DAB – which I have started calling “local DAB” at the recommendation of those involved with the trial, although as it’s a DCMS consultation I will refer to as SSDAB here).
The consultation document can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/small-scale-dab-licensing-consultation and the consultation documentation here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/671660/Small_Scale_DAB_Consultation.pdf
The CMA are also doing their own survey that can be found here: https://goo.gl/forms/F6mv0wTNae7WfXqa2
Now I recommend you respond to the CMA survey, but also consider doing your own response, as the more voices there are (and ideally more from the Community sector) the stronger the response.
Feel free to use my response as a starting point of your own, copy & edit as you may like. (although I would love to know if you do)
1. DCMS would welcome views on whether reserving capacity on small-scale radio multiplexes for community radio stations is the best way of securing carriage for these types of services on mini-muxes. Do you agree with the principle?
Surely the best way of securing carriage for community radio stations is to make sure that the multiplexes are run by the community or not for profit and finding a way of making sure that the platform is affordable and accessible to community radio stations. However, reserving capacity for community radio stations would be a prudent idea, however maybe consider going stronger and make it a condition of the multiplex operators that they have to carry, and that they can not price the stations out of being on the platform.
2. DCMS welcome views on whether there should be an upper limit placed on the amount of capacity reserved for community radio services. Should this be a single figure applicable across all multiplexes?
There shouldn’t be an upper limit no, because each area may have a different amount of community stations, ideally, Ofcom should see how many community stations or possible community stations (based on their current EOI experience), to set how much capacity should be reserved. Also, that capacity needs to be of a reasonable quality and can not simply be set at the lowest possible. They certainly should define a one size fits all approach.
3. Do you agree with the principle that small-scale radio multiplex operators should be able to offer unused capacity reserved for community radio services on a temporary basis?
Yes, I have no issue with operators offering the unused capacity to temporary services, and in fact welcome and encourage this opportunity as a form of digital RSL’s, a great opportunity for events, activities or even for communities to trail broadcasting.
4. DCMS would welcome views on these proposals and on the interaction with the existing community radio licensing regime.
I welcome the consideration for a C-DSP license, however, the following needs to be considered:
The community radio fund is already oversubscribed and is currently not fit for purpose or as designed when it was originally launched, there is simply not enough in the fund for the current 250 Community Radio stations. IF you are proposing that all these extra stations (which no one has any estimate of how many there could be, but we could be looking at hundreds of digital only stations) suddenly has access to the Community Radio Fund then that fund needs to be double as a minimum, and ideally increased even beyond that, also the fund needs to be future proofed, as there is no guarantee that it will exist from general election to general election, and needs to be increased each year in line with inflation but also as the number of eligible stations increase.
Also, you mention access to “lower fees” in the second but last paragraph before this question, but don’t say fees for what, are we to assume Ofcom fees? Multiplex carriage fees? Or music royalty fees? If the answer is yes to all three, then I can see an advantage to this license.
I would welcome an introduction of a C-DSP license as a way to clearly identify community stations over commercial stations, however I do not feel that the benefits (access to reserved capacity, lower undefined fees and access to an already over subscribed community radio fund) outweigh the negatives of restricting the amount of income you can generate from on air advertising and having to deliver key commitments, one point is I think currently CR stations HAVE to have their studio located within the coverage area, there are already CR stations broadcasting on the trial services outside of their studio area, as a way of reaching new audiences and providing them with additional choice and services. Surely the opportunities for SSDAB are for stations to try and do things differently and innovate in a digital age.
I would welcome a C-DSP license that has the criteria that they must be not for profit and as an organisation meet the current criteria for analog licensed stations, maybe introduce some key commitments that provide opportunities, not limitations on what the station can do, and provide access to the positives as listed above. I feel strongly against any restrictions on income generation, as I feel that could be setting these stations up to fail.
5. DCMS would welcome views on this approach and whether it deals with the concerns raised about access to small-scale DAB radio multiplexes by community radio services
I feel strongly that the multiplex operators should be not for profit, and was a “non-commercial” element part of the legislation and debate in parliament. I do not feel that this will restrict the growth of this new platform, as it hasn’t restricted the growth of community radio. There is no reason why current community and commercial broadcasters cannot form separate not for profit organisations (ideally in partnership) to hold and operate the multiplex license.
Whilst reserving capacity for community broadcasters is a good step, how does that actually stop them being priced out of the platform? A commercial operator could set the price too high, wait for the community broadcaster to decline to be on the platform and then petition Ofcom to release that capacity as the community broadcaster isn’t using it.
Equally, whilst transparent pricing is a viable option, what will it actually do? Because if there is only one SSDAB multiplex in the area, it won’t do anything for competition or to balance or drive prices down.
What powers or regulation is Ofcom going to have over the pricing of the license?
Equally, I welcome the consideration that pricing could be submitted as part of the license application, however, I do not think that the application process has been discussed at this point. Will the operators that can offer the lowest pricing be a deciding factor in who might receive the license?
6. DCMS would welcome views on this approach.
I am not opposed to organisations holding more than one license, and I agree that it can help with growth and sustainability, however I really only hold that view, If the license is held by a not for profit organisation, as this would help to secure the platform for the benefit of the communities and not just for commercial gain or commercial interest. Its an open secret that the current model of local DAB is not really fit for purpose, and that the carriage fees are quite often extremely high, too high for community broadcasters, and even some commercial licenses, in fact, we have recently seen commercial stations maybe under threat of their FM license because they have come off the local DAB license which was used to secure auto-renewal / long FM license award. Currently, local DAB has a license to charge as much as they can, and almost hold the BBC and local commercial stations to ransom because they have to be on their platform. We do not what to develop an environment in which the same activity and behaviour can happen, as this would only see the platform become unsuitable for community stations.
I do not believe that any current national or local DAB license holder should be able to hold any share in an SSDAB license, but if we must compromise than limit them to 25% share, and not for any license for which they have any share of a local DAB license.
7. Do you agree with this two-step approach to delineating the size of small-scale multiplexes?
No, I don’t agree with the two-step approach, I have no issue with the first point, and actually using SSDAB as an opportunity to provide coverage in areas that are not currently served with a local service is fantastic. However, I have issues with the second step concerning coverage in an existing local service, which is answered in question 8.
8. Do you agree with the up to 40% limit in areas already served by a local multiplex; if not, why not and what alternative do you propose?
No, as I do not believe that an arbitrary 40% coverage as a one size fits all approach will work, we have seen with the trials that some of the coverage is really problematic and people can struggle with the indoor reception in the towns that they are serving. I believe as part of the application process you should outline what target area you want to cover and show why that works as a proposal, if Ofcom agrees with that proposal then they should be allowed the coverage and power to enable them to be received by all households in that intended area.
Without doing an analysis of all the local DAB licenses its hard to fully map out, but what we do not want to happen, is find that a town or area of a large city cannot get the desired reception because it would take them to 41% coverage of the local multiplex.
I believe that on the whole SSDAB should be setup to cover towns / cities & parts of large cities, as well as a section of rural communities (in part as outlined as the first step), and not really designed to provide a regional or large alternative to the local DAB, and do not feel that a 40% rule which can only be seen to serve as protection against the established local DAB actually does anything to support or develop SSDAB
9. DCMS would be grateful for views on these options or other options along with reasons for your choice.
I do not see the need to have small license lengths for SSDAB, and in fact feel that short licenses make SSDAB less sustainable or desirable for operators, surely the longer the license the longer the operator has to cover setup/capital costs as well as overheads with the ability to negotiate better terms for transmitter locations and service contracts. Not to mention the length of the multiplex license has an impact on any radio service looking to launch or develop the be on that platform, services will want the ability to be able to broadcast for as long as possible, again to offset setup and capital costs.
I feel that the minimum license should be at least 12 years with the option of continuous renewal in line with current government policy, and how national and local multiplex licenses are operated
10. We would also welcome view on the merits of linking license length with underlying demand in an area for a small scale multiplex license.
If this question addresses the point in the narrative that areas with low demand to have a greater license length to provide stability than yes that is a good idea, however, if you are suggesting that in areas of high demand that the license length should be shortened to maybe enable other operators a chance, that produces far too much uncertainty on service broadcasters to plan for the length of their own services.
11. DCMS welcome views on this approach.
I have no issue with allowing the BBC to have coverage on SSDAB, and in fact it might provide a good opportunity for them to provide coverage for existing services and also provide additional services (long-term and temporary) to fit certain needs, I also do not have a problem with the BBC owning or part owning an SSDAB multiplex license, and in fact a partnership between the BBC and local community and maybe even commercial stations might be a great opportunity for all parties.
12. DCMS would welcome views on the implications of this approach.
I do not feel that Ofcom should consider the impact SSDAB has on local multiplexes. The worse case is that local license owners might find some services moving off their platform so they can be served by SSDAB as it fits their purpose (and finances) better, or that local licenses find they have to lower their fees to enable them to “compete” with SSDAB services, I think both of these outcomes are actually a benefit to the entire sector, and why I don’t feel Ofcom should consider the impact of an SSDAB license on the local DAB license.