As set out in the recently published Digital Britain White Paper, the Government recognise that building out a digital audio broadcasting (DAB) infrastructure which meets the needs of broadcasters, multiplex operators and listeners, including improving the quality of the signal, will require additional investment. However, the digital radio upgrade programme, alongside the proposals on co-location and licence-renewals, will offer significant cost-savings for commercial broadcasters, some of which must support investment in improving coverage.
In areas where the BBC's need to deliver universal access is not matched by the economic realities of the local commercial market, the BBC will need to bear a significant portion of the costs. The full cost cannot be left to the BBC alone. Where possible, the BBC and national commercial multiplex operators should work together to ensure that any new transmitters benefit both BBC and commercial multiplexes. Partnerships between the BBC and commercial local multiplex operators will be even more important at a local DAB level.
We will work with the BBC, transmission providers and Ofcom to agree a plan for the extension and improvement of local DAB coverage, and where the cost would most appropriately fall.
DAB coverage is principally measured by population rather than geographic area. Approximately 90 per cent. of the UK population currently have some access to DAB services on at least one multiplex.
DAB coverage in Northern Ireland is estimated at around 87 per cent. of the population. Listeners in Northern Ireland can access up to 23 DAB stations, including the 11 national BBC stations plus BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle, four national commercial stations (Classic FM, talkSPORT, BFBS and Amazing Radio), and six local commercial stations.
In Northern Ireland, the BBC national multiplex was extended in April 2009, with a new transmitter installed at Armagh, adding coverage for an estimated 80,000 people, improving reception for around 200,000 more in the area. The other four transmitter sites in Northern Ireland are at Divis, Brougher Mountain, Limavady and Sheriff’s Mountain in Derry/Londonderry.
The Government have tabled an amendment to the draft Digital Economy Bill which would allow the existing national commercial multiplex to extend its coverage into Northern Ireland. This would double the capacity available for digital commercial services in Northern Ireland.
No specific assessment has been made of the impact of the radio provisions set out in the draft Digital Economy Bill on local commercial stations remaining on FM after the digital radio switchover. However, my Department is in regular dialogue with the industry with the specific purpose of ensuring that local radio can continue to thrive on FM after the digital radio switchover.