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DAB+ to play key role in new UK digital multiplex

Sound Digital will run the UK's second national commercial digital radio network from 2016. Kevin Hilton looks at the technical aspects involved and the potential for DAB+

The UK radio listening audience will get a new selection of digital radio stations next year when the country’s second national commercial DAB multiplex goes on air. The licence has been awarded to Sound Digital, a consortium of Bauer Media, UTV Media and transmission network provider Arqiva, which promises DAB+ capability for at least one station.

Since the 1990s national digital radio in Britain has been split between the BBC and the Digital One network, which went live in 1999. The multiplex is now wholly owned by Arqiva, reaches over 90 percent of the UK population and carries 14 radio services, with another due to be added this year.

Digital radio in the UK has expanded steadily, with a wide range of consumer digital radios coming on to the market, despite a very slow start that did not keep up with the number of stations being launched, and vociferous arguments that DAB is outdated technology.

The growth in demand for digital capacity, which in turn has offered a wider choice in services, led broadcast regulator Ofcom to advertise a second commercial mutiplex, known provisionally as Digital Two, in 2007. Ofcom decided not to award the licence at that time but with Digital One approaching full capacity the second multiplex was advertised again last year. Two applicants submitted bids: Sound Digital and Listen2Digital, a partnership between commercial radio group Orion Media and communications distribution network provider Babcock.

On 27th March Ofcom announced Sound Digital as the winner, with the new service set to go into operation next year. The consortium breaks down into Arqiva holding a 40% share, with Bauer and UTV 30% each. So far Sound Digital will house 14 services including talkRadio (owned by UTV), with two new sister stations (talkSport 2 and talkBusiness), Virgin Radio (also UTV), Absolute 80s, Premier, Heart and Planet Rock. There will also be a slot for an as yet unnamed fifteenth station broadcasting in DAB+.

Planet Rock, Absolute 80s and Premier are currently on Digital One but Glyn Jones, operations director for digital radio at Arqiva, says their operators have taken “commercial decisions” to move them to Sound Digital, which will “open up some capacity” on the existing multiplex. The selling point of the new platform, as Arqiva sees it, is that it is, in Jones’ description, “a DAB+ network with DAB capability”.

The World DAB Forum, which promotes the DAB family of technologies for digital radio internationally, has been pushing heavily the enhanced ‘plus’ version of the original format since it was announced in 2006. Since then Australia has launched digital radio services based on DAB+ and a number of European countries, notably Germany, are making the switch to it. UK broadcasters did not initially see DAB+ as viable because of the number of DAB radios already in use but after a consultation process Ofcom proposed the new national multiplex would accommodate both formats.

“DAB+ is a cheaper way to connect with the national audience because it is more efficient in the same amount of spectrum capacity [as DAB],” comments Jones (pictured right). “Fewer transmitters are needed as well, with approximately 45 being installed for Sound Digital compared to in the region of 140 used by Digital One. The savings can be passed on to our customers and listeners benefit because there is more choice, with about twice the number of stations.”

The aim is for Sound Digital to cover around 75% of the UK, mainly in cities, large towns and suburban areas. Jones says building of the transmitter network is now underway, with the launch due by the end of March 2016. He adds that a high power transmitter such as that at Crystal Palace in south London (pictured), which currently handles DAB, FM and digital TV signals, can reach in the region of 10 million people.

Anyone wanting to hear the so-far lone DAB+ station will have to buy a new radio, although Jones points out that out of the 20 million receivers currently in use approximately two to three million are able to pick up the necessary signals. The in-car sector, which was the slowest to adopt DAB, is apparently embracing DAB+ as its standard for new models.

The promise of more choice and the move to a more up-to-date technology might give digital radio in the UK a boost. Equally the appearance of another form of DAB with only a small base of potential listeners could play into the hands of the naysayers.