Recently, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate published a market consultation regarding the so-called DAB layer 6. A tour of the market yielded an interesting view from Broadcast Partners (BP).
DAB layer 6 is intended for local and other relatively small-scale broadcasters. If known, BP is heavily involved in the development of DAB+, both at the national, regional and local level.
The market consultation presents proposals, which would allow only a limited number of broadcasters to light low-power DAB transmitters. Only 22 of the targeted 81 allotments can get a frequency in the near future. In large parts of the country, there will be no DAB space for local stations for the time being, while much more should be possible. This states BP in response to the consultation.
Doubts about feasibility
BP says that, first of all, it is highly uncertain whether 81 allotments can ultimately be realized in the international negotiations. As such, this has also been recognized by the Telecom Agency previously. However, with the market consultation, the push for those 81 allotments is being kept alive, so local broadcasters may be caught off guard and hoping for something that will never come.
The international coordination of local SGI layer 6 was a tricky issue from the start. The Netherlands wants to change a number of large allotment areas to 81 small ones at the request of NLPO, but this requires many more channel numbers. The Netherlands doesn’t have that many, so that has to be negotiated internationally and the outcome of that is only known after negotiations.
The Netherlands is asking neighboring countries for a favor that may not be sufficient in return. On the other hand, it could be that at some point neighbors will get some more desires for small-scale DAB+ themselves and that would help, but that is highly uncertain.
In addition, the areas and technical parameters requested by the Netherlands are often far too small for proper exploitation; this is true everywhere, but extra so in the western part of the Netherlands.
The proposed division of regional broadcasters has produced unusual situations; for example, Twente has been split in two, Vlaardingen and Schiedam suddenly appear to be separated from Rotterdam, Amstelveen from Amsterdam, et cetera.
The objective of a regional broadcaster (or a combination of neighboring local broadcasters) is to serve a region with a shared culture, common social values, and economic unity. In such a cohesive area, broadcasters should be easy to receive.
BP, partly in view of the formation of regional broadcasters and their ability to compete with the larger players, has argued for larger areas and increased transmission powers for local DAB networks. Such a filling would be quite possible in that combination, and most local broadcasters have a preference for higher power. This would reduce the number of channels to nearly 70 and require fewer channel numbers, allowing significantly more broadcasters to launch on DAB+.
Broadcasters should not have to deal with faltering coverage again; the mistake of the past with baby monitor-sized FM transmitters should not be repeated. With marginal reach, local broadcasters today are hopeless against the bigger players.
However, the voice of local broadcasters has apparently not penetrated our government sufficiently, perhaps because they consulted in too narrow a context.
Expansion opportunities for DAB+ in early 2020
According to BP, the number of immediately usable allotments can be increased from 22 to 49. This is possible through a slightly different approach and the use of frequencies 5A and 6C now, because the Netherlands already has rights for these. Frequency 6C was once reserved as a second DAB network for the eastern Netherlands, similar to 6B now, but for reasons of unaffordability it did not get off the ground.
By deploying frequency 5A (now used by MTVNL in Friesland), a large part of Limburg could also already start using DAB+. In addition, frequency 5C, used in Germany for the first Bundesmux, is easily coordinated for use in southern Zeeland and western Brabant. So there are many more options in the short term than the consultation suggests.
Eliminate unnecessary rules
According to BP, the proposals in the consultation also contain many unnecessary rules, which are probably well-intentioned, but could get in the way quite a bit in practice. Why does the government want to set a maximum number of channels in a multiplex, or a protection level?
The reservation of 50% for public local broadcasters seems sympathetic, but if part of a multiplex remains unused and there are (non-public) candidates who want to pay, then you are putting the cart before the horse. If the cost per participant decreases due to a larger number of participants, there is more financial room for a robust DAB signal. That fundability is an under-researched element, and if it is not properly addressed, then it drives local broadcasting to a position of no chance as a result of substandard DAB distribution. With these unnecessary rules, you take all the flexibility out of it and you put a strain on the fundability of quality DAB+ for regional broadcasters.
What can broadcasters do with the consultation?
The arrangement before us is a draft, a proposal, to which the market may respond. Thus, the scheme can still be changed, at least if there is sufficient response from the market. Those who want to have a decent transmission range or who want to get started with DAB+ quickly would therefore be well advised to state their reasons in the consultation procedure.
Radio.NL asked Broadcast Partners if it would be willing to provide further information to local broadcasters. After all, it’s not easy to take a stand and put it across. The broadcasting company has agreed to provide that information free of charge, if broadcasters request it.
The response page for the consulation can be found here. [Radio.NL