Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


Annex

Digital Radio in Wales

Background

  Section 49 of the Broadcasting Act 1996 requires the Radio Authority to reserve to the BBC digital capacity to enable every BBC local radio service and every BBC radio service for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to be received in digital form.

  The BBC wishes to offer its radio services to audiences in Wales—Radio Wales and Radio Cymru—at the same time as it brings them digital versions of the network services—Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Live as well as any new digital radio services.

  The BBC has been allocated a UK-wide multiplex of its own. However, the BBC multiplex is fully utilised across the whole UK by the five networks and by new BBC services—there is no space for Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, etc.

  Also, the UK-wide multiplex allocated to the BBC is a single frequency network and does not have the technical capacity of offering different services to different parts of the UK.

  The speed of roll-out and eventual coverage of BBC local radio and services in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be governed by the Radio Authority's timetable, based on commercial imperatives, rather than on the principle of universal coverage for all licence payers.

  The BBC has proposed a technical solution to the Radio Authority (RA):

    —  it would require the allocation of an additional multiplex frequency to the BBC in Wales (and in Scotland) on which the services for Wales and Scotland would be broadcast;

    —  whilst this would require some minor adjustments to the RA's technical plan, it would not impact significantly on the RA's proposed roll-out of commercial services;

    —  it would have the added advantage for the RA of freeing-up space on the commercial multiplexes for more digital commercial services to be offered.

Radio Authority Response

  The BBC's proposal was presented to the Radio Authority in December 1998.

  The Authority has written to both the DCMS and the Commercial Radio Companies Association to canvass their views. This consultation process is continuing.

  The Radio Authority's response to the BBC's proposal made the following points:

    —  the proposal raises questions of principle since it involves the transfer of spectrum earmarked for use by the RA to the BBC instead;

    —  it regards certain local multiplex licences which it proposes to advertise as of strategic importance to the development of digital radio;

    —  the RA is keen to ensure that any stand-alone development for the BBC in Wales and Scotland would not have a significant impact on the practicability of these licences (eg by interference);

    —  certain RA-licenced multiplex areas would require to operate on a co-channel basis (Swansea and Bristol; South Wales and West Midlands) some of the areas which appear in the RA's current published plan would need to be withdrawn (including Heads of the Valleys; Cardigan Bay; North Wales Coast; Montgomeryshire.

  The Radio Authority did suggest that some areas could be served by L-Band frequencies (available from 2007 onwards).

BBC contact with DCMS

  The BBC has written to the DCMS (26 January, 1999), informing the Department of the proposal and requesting their views.

  The letter makes the following points:

    —  the rate at which the BBC's services for Wales and Scotland are rolled out currently depends on the RA's plans for offering commercial radio licences;

    —  this gives rise to tensions where the RA's priorities for roll-out, for commercial reasons, do not match the BBC's public service priorities;

    —  the problem has its root in the relative shortage of spectrum but it appears that in the medium term, spectrum shortage will be readdressed by the reallocation of L-Band frequencies for DAB;

    —  frequencies earmarked for commercial stations in Wales (and Scotland), but on which the RA have no immediate plans for licencing services, could be reallocated to the BBC to allow early roll-out of the Welsh and Scottish services;

    —  in return, the RA could be allocated L-Band frequencies when they become available in the run-up to 2007;

    —  in the short term this plan offers benefits to audiences by freeing up space on the commercial multiplexes in Wales and Scotland for additional commercial services, in addition to the BBC's nation's services on a separate multiplex.

Issues

  The BBC proposal is being progressed with DCMS and the Radio Authority. BBC National Governors have also sent letters to DCMS supporting the BBC proposal.

  While the BBC considers the roll-out of Wales-wide (and Scotland-wide) services a priority, the Radio Authority has no immediate plans for offering licences across the whole of the two countries.

  The BBC proposal would require the Radio Authority to reallocate to the BBC, frequencies which have been earmarked for commercial stations in Wales and Scotland but on which the RA have no immediate plans for licensing services.

  In return, the Radio Authority could be allocated some L-Band frequencies when they became available.

  In the short term this proposal offers benefits to audiences by freeing up space on the commercial multiplexes in Wales and Scotland for additional commercial services in addition to the BBC's services to those countries on a separate multiplex.

  The BBC would welcome the opportunity to work with the Radio Authority to explore the detailed technical issues in an attempt to develop workable options satisfying the reasonable requirements of both public service and commercial radio.

  Failure to reach agreement will mean that BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru will not be available on a single frequency Digital Radio network across Wales for at least seven years.





 
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