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Legislative Reform (Renewal of National Radio Multiplex Licences) Order 2022

Volume 820: debated on Monday 4 April 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Legislative Reform (Renewal of National Radio Multiplex Licences) Order 2022.

Relevant document: 21st Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee

My Lords, I am pleased to introduce a statutory instrument which was laid before your Lordships’ House on 31 January 2022: the draft Legislative Reform (Renewal of National Radio Multiplex Licences) Order 2022.

This is a short but important order that will bring clarity and certainty to the UK’s commercial radio sector. In particular, it will allow the holders of the two national commercial radio multiplex licences, Digital One and Sound Digital, to renew these licences for a further period—12 years and 7 years respectively—to 2035. This provision will have the most immediate effect for the Digital One licence, which is due to expire in November 2023. The measure meets the tests set out in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 and has been approved by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships’ House and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in another place as being appropriate for a legislative reform order with the affirmative procedure.

Since the launch of the Digital Radio Action Plan in 2010, the Government have supported the listener-led transition of radio from analogue to digital, through measures including the expansion of the digital transmission networks to substantially match FM coverage. There has been significant progress in the past decade. Digital radio now accounts for two-thirds of all radio listening, having been less than 30% 10 years ago.

Digital radio differs from analogue broadcasting, where a single encoded signal is broadcast on an analogue frequency, such as AM or FM. A digital radio multiplex or network compresses and bundles a number of radio services into one frequency and transmits it digitally to a certain geographic area. The signal is then decoded by a digital radio receiver used by listeners either in-home or in-vehicle. Digitisation allows radio broadcasters to use spectrum more efficiently, giving listeners more choice when listening to digital radio.

The UK’s independent broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, is responsible for the licensing of commercial digital radio multiplex services under Part 2 of the Broadcasting Act 1996. Radio multiplex services are licensed by Ofcom in terms of national, local and small-scale coverage.

Currently, there are two UK-wide national commercial digital radio multiplexes with around 20 digital radio stations broadcasting on each network. The licence holders are Digital One Ltd and Sound Digital Ltd. These two national digital radio multiplexes are an essential means of distributing national commercial radio stations to audiences across the UK. They have been successful in opening the national airwaves to more commercial radio services and in allowing commercial radio to compete with the BBC, which operates its own national multiplex.

The licence for the Digital One national radio multiplex was first issued in November 1999 and was granted with a right for one further renewal of 12 years. The licence was renewed by Ofcom in 2011 and runs to November 2023. The second licence is held by Sound Digital Ltd and was issued in March 2016. This multiplex licence will expire in March 2028 and currently has no renewal option.

Under the Broadcasting Act 1996, Ofcom does not at present have power to renew these national multiplex licences beyond the current expiry dates. Therefore, with the existing Digital One licence due to reach its final expiry date in November next year, and with Ofcom having no authority under the existing legislation to extend these further, the Government believed it was important to give the commercial radio operators who use these networks clarity and certainty about the future of the platform.

In July 2021, we issued a consultation to explore the options for reform: a do-nothing option, which would involve allowing the licences to be readvertised, or to legislate to allow the further renewal of the two licences for a further period, to either December 2030 or December 2035. Having carefully considered the feedback from the consultation, our conclusion was to legislate to allow for an automatic renewal of the two national radio multiplex licences. This was supported by the majority of respondents.

We believe that allowing the licences to be renewed will give national commercial radio broadcasters the long-term certainty and stability for their businesses and the confidence to continue to invest in digital radio services. It will also avoid a complex, disruptive and time-consuming relicensing process at a time when commercial radio is still recovering from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on advertising revenues.

While some respondents were in favour of opening up the national radio multiplex licences to new competition, in our view a competitive bidding process for relicensing the licences would be disruptive and would have administrative, cost and management time burdens not just for the existing multiplex operators in rebidding for the licences but, more importantly, for the commercial radio stations carried on the networks. There would also be an administrative burden for Ofcom in running a competitive process for the licences.

Noble Lords may be concerned that the measure restricts competition. However, there has been little interest in operating a national radio multiplex, in part due to the high barriers to entry. There have been no market, technical or regulatory changes in recent years that would in our view make it more attractive for an external party to operate a national radio multiplex; indeed, digital radio is now an increasingly mature platform. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in another place considered this issue in detail and was satisfied that the competition concerns were fully considered by Her Majesty’s Government.

In setting the length of renewals, we reflected carefully on the feedback received from respondents, which was strongly supportive of a longer renewal for both licences. The provisions in this order will therefore update the legislation to allow Ofcom to grant a renewal of the national commercial radio multiplex licences for an additional 12 years in the case of the Digital One multiplex and seven years for the Sound Digital multiplex, with both licences to end on 31 December 2035.

In our view, the order will support the next phase of the radio industry’s transition towards digital transmission. It will provide national commercial radio operators much-needed certainty and the confidence to continue to invest in their digital services. I should make clear, however, that the Government, while supportive of the transition to digital transmission, have made no firm commitments about a future radio switchover. The joint industry and government Digital Radio and Audio Review, published in October last year, examined future trends and concluded that, while digital’s share of listening will continue to grow, FM will be needed until at least 2030—a view the Government support, given the important role that FM listening still plays for many radio listeners.

In summary, the order will allow for the renewal of the national multiplex licences. It will provide stability and certainty to the commercial radio industry during this tough time, while supporting the progress of UK radio and audio towards a digital future. I beg to move.

My Lords, I cannot believe that this is going to be a mass event. I thank the Minister for his introduction to the LRO and welcome the commitment to digital radio represented by this LRO. However, as we noted during recent Oral Questions, we are all looking forward to the government response to the Digital Radio and Audio Review of last October, which has not yet been published. Perhaps the Minister would reveal a little more than he did about when we can expect it to be forthcoming—“spring” or “summer” would do; “shortly” is a word he might wish to deploy as well.

There are some questions to be answered, which I hope will appear in the response and which are relevant to today’s LRO. I recognise that the BEIS Select Committee asked some of these, but I want to go a little further. Clearly, IP radio is coming in in force, especially with smart speakers and voice assistants now beginning to replace dedicated radio sets. I for one will be interested in what the Government have to say about prominence and algorithmic curation of playlists, station selection and content, and how this will fit with the new statutory competition framework for the Digital Markets Unit.

Last week, representatives from news media and publishing, including radio, highlighted the need for the Government to introduce statutory powers for the DMU to help tackle the threat of tech platforms, but over the weekend there were reports that this may be dropped from the Queen’s Speech. Does the Minister recognise the urgency of putting in place such powers in regulating online gatekeepers such as smart speakers and voice assistants? What proposals will there be in the next parliamentary Session to address the significant current risk to media plurality and broadcasters’ business models from the digital platforms linked to these devices?

In June 2021, the then Secretary of State for DCMS announced plans for a broadcasting White Paper, which would address a range of issues, including regulation of commercial radio and prominence of UK radio services online and on smart speakers. When is this White Paper expected and will it address these issues?

However, surely key in all this is that spectrum for the multiplexes is a scarce commodity, and demand for it will depend on how much commercial radio DAB is replaced by IP broadcasting. Should not any renewal of the DAB multiplex licences have been set in context with the response to the review on this, particularly in terms of the competition issues associated with any renewal and the pressures on the two multiplexes? In addition, is not the potential change to mandatory licence conditions to include the necessity to include DAB+ relevant in terms of the pressure on the two systems, as well as the ability to satisfy demand for space on the multiplexes?

Similarly, I note the commitment mentioned by the Minister not to switch off FM services before 2030, despite digital reaching 66% of listening. Is not the future of FM relevant to the renewal of the multiplex licences? Will this be covered by the response to the review?

There seems little price competition in the grant of licences. In other areas, such as mobile telephony spectrum, we have seen a bidding system—why not in this area now that digital radio technology is well established?

The general impression is that the Government might have jumped the gun in this area, but in other areas relating to commercial radio they are dragging their heels. What can the Government say in response to all these concerns, many of which are shared by the commercial radio industry?

My Lords, we too welcome the order, which secures the future of popular radio stations including Absolute Radio, Classic FM and Times Radio, and will ensure that, as a product of the renewal of the UK national digital radio multiplex licences, we have stability and certainty for the next decade, as the Minister said.

As I understand matters, the Government are giving Ofcom the power to renew the two commercial radio multiplex licences, Digital One Ltd and Sound Digital Ltd, which, as the Minister explained, are due to expire in 2023 and 2028 respectively. This move will mean that audiences across the UK can enjoy uninterrupted access to the huge range of radio content available from the country’s national commercial broadcasters through their digital devices on a free-to-air basis. Well-known stations on the Digital One Ltd multiplex include Absolute Radio, Capital and Smooth. Listeners can find the likes of Jazz FM and talkRADIO on the Sound Digital Ltd multiplex. That is all to the good.

As I understand it, the first of the two licences is due to expire in November next year. Rather than going continually through the bidding process every five years, the Government seem to have decided to spare both sides the time and cost of doing so. That too is welcome.

As has been said, the Commons BEIS Committee has published its report on the order. This confirms that it meets all the relevant tests that would be expected. We welcome the fact that those have been properly gone through, and we consider the policy to be proportionate. It has been subject to appropriate consultation, and that too is to be welcomed.

We support the change and recognise the enduring value of radio in general terms. Who does not love “The Archers”, “Desert Island Discs”, Jazz FM, BBC 6 Music—I could go on? All these bring great pleasure to us.

As the Minister usually talks about broadcast media, I wondered—rather like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—whether the Minister would not mind giving us a wider update. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, noted, in the Oral Question on 14 March several noble Lords highlighted the fact that we await the Government’s response to both the Digital Radio and Audio Review, which reported as far back as October last year, and a broader review into public service broadcasting. Could we have a progress report on that? Can the Minister offer more than the usual comments about it being “in due course”, because I think that we need to be kept up to date on this. Will these reviews end up as a feature in part of the upcoming media Bill? When can we expect that Bill? Like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I too am interested in the prominence issue, the online gatekeeper role, the risks to plurality that confront us, and the timetable for the broadcasting White Paper. Clearly, this is an important moment in the history of broadcast, and we need to have a plan for its ever-broadening and ever-widening future.

There is a lot to view and to contemplate, and I hope that we can soon get some meaningful legislation so that we do not have to go through processes for orders such as this in the future and so that we can have a more streamlined approach to covering changes and advances in media technology. However, overall we very much welcome the order.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments and their support for the order. As ever, with a brisk debate such as this, it can be difficult to scribble down all the questions, so if I have missed anything I will of course write to noble Lords with points that I have not been able to address.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, is right to name some of the much-loved stations that are covered by the order—that is the importance of this for radio listeners across the country, and it is right to have them in mind.

Both noble Lords took the opportunity, not unreasonably, to ask about other legislative vehicles. They will understand that, this close to the gracious Speech, I am limited in what I can say, but the Government certainly agree that the current commercial radio licensing framework requires simplification. In particular, we need a regulatory structure for commercial radio that supports investment by broadcasters in content and the long-term sustainability of the sector. We feel that the current structure falls short, and we will be introducing the relevant legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. On other legislative vehicles, I am afraid that noble Lords will have to wait for the gracious Speech and the details contained therein.

On the legislative background and technical details, as I set out in my opening speech the Government have decided to allow the two national commercial radio multiplex licences on the digital terrestrial radio platform, which are due to expire, to be renewed for a further period. The two national multiplexes, which carry 44 national commercial radio stations, in total facilitate coverage to around 91% of homes across the UK at the moment.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about our support for this technology into the 2030s. We know that the terrestrial DAB platform is popular with UK audiences and plays an important role in supporting public service broadcasting by providing a universal, reliable, secure and free-to-air distribution channel. Audience figures from Radio Joint Audience Research show that DAB is the single largest platform, with a 42.5% share of all radio listening in the fourth quarter of last year. By contrast, analogue radio via FM or AM services continues to fall and accounts for 35.6% of all listening. Research for the joint government and industry Digital Radio and Audio Review indicates that the terrestrial DAB platform will continue to be the most important means by which listeners access radio content into the mid to late-2030s.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about the Digital Radio and Audio Review, which looked at the issue of smart speakers that we touched on in the Oral Question a few days ago. As I said then, we agree that good arguments have been made for taking action to protect radio’s long-term position, in the context of the rapid growth in usage of connected audio devices, and to ensure the continuation of the huge public value which radio provides. But, as we noted in the exchange on that Question, this will not be straightforward: any significant intervention in this area will need to be considered in the wider context of other work that we are carrying out, particularly in relation to digital markets and data protection reform. Both noble Lords asked when our response to the Digital Radio and Audio Review will be published; we expect to publish this response in the coming weeks.

We believe that the provisions in the order before us will allow national commercial radio operators to focus their efforts at this difficult time on continuing to deliver the vital news and entertainment that listeners value most, while supporting the ongoing transition towards a digital future for the radio sector. I commend this order to the Committee.

Before the Minister sits down, one question that he has not really answered is why this LRO is taking place before the response to the review is available. The particular question that I asked in relation to that response was about the place of IP radio, for instance. This is all about what different kinds of radio broadcasting are taking place. Of course, if one wishes to renew these multiplexes, it is all about how much multiplex space is required relative to IP and FM. I talked about jumping the gun, but I do not quite understand why the LRO is taking place now, before the response, when if it were actually set in context we would have a much better idea when that response comes out.

My Lords, as I outlined at the beginning, this is the result of significant consultation, which agreed very much with the Government’s approach. We want to provide national commercial radio operators with the certainty and confidence that they need to continue to invest in their digital services, which is why we are doing it now. However, I will certainly write to the noble Lord with further detail on the point about IP radio, which we continue to look at. As we noted on the Question a few days ago, that area is changing rapidly. The landscape continues to evolve, but this order is being made so that the industry has the confidence and certainty that it needs to invest to support the transition to the digital future, which I think all noble Lords have agreed with today.

Motion agreed.