Making Waves: extending the BBC’s digital radio coverage to a further 2 million people

Director, BBC Distribution

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Today, I am giving the keynote speech at Tech Con, the day of technical discussions, experiments, and debates which kicks off each year's Radio Festival. It is a great privilege to be asked to speak to such a passionate and interested group of my peers.

Inevitably much of what gets discussed at any industry event is about the future: new technologies, new opportunities, new ways of serving the audience. My message to Tech Con this morning is that in having this important conversation about the future, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that overwhelmingly our audiences still come to our services through broadcast platforms.

For radio, nearly 90% of listening hours are delivered through FM, AM, and digital (DAB), equating to 900 million hours of radio each week in round numbers; a staggering figure. It's the same for TV; some 98% of viewing is to live or time-shifted programmes which were delivered to the home on satellite, cable, or Freeview.

So I am making the point that we have to balance our critical investment in the future with investment in broadcast platforms, in order that they are worthy as the nation's favourite places to watch and listen to our services.

And it gives me great pleasure to be able to show that in action, by announcing the next phase of the roll-out of our UK-wide digital radio network, which will bring an extra c. 2 million people into coverage. Our DAB network carries our UK-wide radio services, including BBC Radio 1 to 5Live, 1Xtra, 4 Extra and 6Music. Having placed the contract for the services with transmission company Arqiva earlier in the summer, we're now able to confirm that we will be building a further 162 digital radio transmitters over the next two years. That's three a fortnight on average, every fortnight, between now and Christmas 2015.

This phase of the network will get our coverage up above 97%. But we're not just building transmitters to bring new towns and villages into coverage; we're also building ones to reinforce coverage in key areas. Glasgow, Liverpool, Oxford, Leicester, Coventry, and Eastbourne are all examples of places which will get improved coverage for many, as well as coverage for the first time for a few.

The first transmitter in this phase to come on-air will be for Basingstoke and we expect that to be in operation this side of Christmas. Arqiva is still working on the timetable and even when it is finalised, it will flex as project work at each site concludes, so we won't be publishing a detailed version. We will make sure that there is appropriate publicity in the relevant areas as new transmitters are switched on. We'll also keep the industry postcode checker up to date as we go.

You might be wondering what this means for BBC Local Radio or our radio services for the Nations. Not a lot, I'm sorry to say. As you might know, our Local Radio services and our radio services for the Nations are carried in capacity which we buy from a commercial multiplex operator in each area. The expansion of the commercial multiplexes is tied up with the Government's digital radio action plan. There is extensive work going on across the industry on that front and we expect some more news at the end of this year. So, for now at least, this phase of network expansion covers only the BBC's UK-wide services.

So where will the 162 transmitters be? Well, we're still finalising the exact specifics but below is a summary of the areas we're looking to serve in this phase of the network.

BBC DAB Phase 4 by area, number of transmitters in parentheses, including principal towns/villages

City-centre boosts

Aberdeen, Bournemouth, Coventry, Glasgow,Leicester, Lincoln, Liverpool, Oxford and Plymouth

England

Berkshire (2) – Wokingham, Maidenhead
Buckinghamshire (3) – Chesham, Aylesbury, High Wycombe
Cambridgeshire (1) – Wisbech
Cornwall (2) – St Just, St Erth
County Durham (1) – Weardale Valley
Cumbria (1) – Barrow-in-Furness
Derbyshire (6) – Ashbourne, Glossop, Chapel-en-le-Frith
Devon (10) – Ashburton, Bampton, Beer, Brixham, Dartmouth
Dorset (3) – Lyme Regis, Blandford Forum
Essex (2) – Braintree, Harlow
Gloucestershire (2) – Stow-on-the-Wold
Hampshire (4)
Hertfordshire (2) – Letchworth, Stevenage
Isle of Wight (1) – Ventnor
Kent (4) – Folkestone, Faversham, Dover, Deal
Lancashire (5) – Darwen, Blackpool, Whalley, Whitworth
Lincolnshire (7) – Boston, Bourne, Grantham, Scunthorpe, Skegness
Norfolk (11) – Brandon, Fakenham, Downham Market, Kings Lynn, Thetford, Wells-next-the-Sea
North Yorkshire (3) – Harrogate, Pateley Bridge, Skipton
Northampton (1)
Northumberland (3) – Haydon Bridge, Hexham, Alnmouth, Alnwick
Oxfordshire (1) – Banbury
Redcar and Cleveland (1) – Skinningrove
Shropshire (4) – Bishop’s Castle, Church Stretton, Ludlow, Oswestry
Somerset (2) – Chard, Weston-super-Mare
South Yorkshire (1) – Stocksbridge
Suffolk (7) – Southwold, Bungay, Felixstowe, Sudbury, Ipswich
Surrey (4) – Caterham, Haslemere, Dorking, Leatherhead
West Sussex (3) – Crawley, East Grinstead
East Sussex (2) – Rye, Eastbourne
Teeside (1) – Barnard Castle
West Yorkshire (4) – Hebden Bridge, Calder Valley
Worcestershire (1)

Scotland

Aberdeenshire (3)
Argyll and Bute (2), including Islay
Borders (3) – Innerleithen, Jedburgh, Peebles
Dumfries and Galloway (4) – Kirkconnel, Langholm, Moffat, Thornhill
Ross-shire and the isles (1)
Isle of Skye (1)
Perthshire (1) – Montrose
South Ayrshire (2)
South Lanarkshire (1)

Wales

Bridgend (1)
Camarthenshire (1) – Kidwelly
Ceredigion (2) – Lampeter, Newcastle Emlyn
Conwy (1)
North Anglesey (1)
Flintshire (1)
Neath Port Talbot (1)
North Wales (5) – Deiniolen, Dolgellau, Cefn Mawr, Wrexham
Pembrokeshire (2) – Haverfordwest, Tenby
Powys (4) – Brecon, Hay-on-Wye, Llanidloes, Machynlleth
South Wales (1) – Aberdare
Swansea (1)

Northern Ireland

Ballycastle (1)
Bangor (1)
Newtownards (1)

Channel Islands

Guernsey (1)

Isle of Man

Ramsey (1)
Port St Mary (1)

So to conclude, I’d like to share the happy thought that, when we've finished, around 49 in 50 people in the UK will be covered by our digital radio network.

 

Alix Pryde is Director, BBC Distribution.

 

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Comments

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by Paddy

    on 24 Oct 2013 16:24

    6 transmitters in NI and they cover the outskirts of it mainly, leaving a huge chunk of people in the centre and south unable to receive a thing. Why couldn't an effort be made to bring coverage here instead of turning on more outskirts transmitters in border/seaside locations?

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by Sue_Aitch

    on 19 Oct 2013 08:22

    Of my various DAB/FM Radios, the manufacturer has a software upgrade on salen to enable the set to decode DAB+ for just one of them. If the decision is made to go to DAB+ I'll have three sets no longer decoding digitalbradcasts. I do not envy DCMS their responsibilities.

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  • Comment number 15. Posted by Stu Mitchell

    on 19 Oct 2013 07:34

    Trev is right. Although the UK was pioneers of it some time ago, the world has moved on and we are stuck with an outdated format - the downsides of being early pioneers. Many others are going straight to DAB+ since it represents a much better format. Personally I think it won't be long before all broadcasting is over IP anyway.

    Why spend more on an antiquated technology?

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by Bev MARKS

    on 16 Oct 2013 15:48

    Alix - thanks for explaining the background and following the You and Yours interview, I appreciate it is not easy to describe your technical plan in totality in a few words. But the issue for me is: do you intend to match FM coverage from Heathfield and when? In my location it is not yet the case that DAB gives us adequate year round service in all parts of our house and garden - however FM is OK everywhere...

    It would seem to me appropriate for the BBC to now publish the technical plan in full, for those with required skills to interpret it, to gain a full understanding of what is intended and when it will be implemented.

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by Mungo

    on 15 Oct 2013 21:15

    Nice to see Bournemouth is getting a boost to become a city!

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by Trev

    on 15 Oct 2013 10:42

    The latest annual report on digital radio from Ofcom shows people are still buying more FM radio sets than DAB, and 60% of new cars still don’t have DAB as standard.
    Forty-six per cent of people claimed ownership of a DAB digital radio, but out of those who do not have access to a set at home, only 14% claim that they are ‘likely’/’very likely’/’certain’ to buy a set in the next 12 months.

    @Alix

    DAB is biggest white elephant the BBC has ever produced. 18 years old and still with only 23.9% of listening. It is technically impossibe for it to repace FM and takes us back to the days of mono medium wave quality . FM should not be switched off until a viable alternative is available.

    I see you are carefull to distance yourself from this fiasco by blaming the BBC Trust.

    You said:
    "We expect that further expansion is likely to be required if a switchover is to be achieved."

    The point is coverage is not the only problem with DAB. DAB is simply not fit for purpose. Very poor sound quality, poor error correction, many stations in mono, some in joint stereo, no multi media support, a rigid multiplex system to name a few.

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Alix Pryde

    on 15 Oct 2013 10:16

    Thank you for all your comments. It's really rewarding to read the excitement that some of you have expressed for this, which my team has been working on very hard. To address some of your questions straight away...

    Briantist - as I think one of the other posters has suggested, it was our intention at this time just to give a flavour of some of the places which will be served by the new transmitters; that's why we just referred to the principal towns and villages involved, as the note above the list makes clear. At this point in the build-out of the network, many of our transmitters will serve multiple places (and some, primarily lengths of road) and so there isn't, as I think you are assuming, a one-to-one mapping of transmitter to principal town. The other thing to be careful about: what is in the blog is a list of places, not transmitters; in some areas we may be using the existing television / radio transmitter which shares its name with the town, in others we may not. As we build them out, we will publish transmitter locations (including grid references and other characteristics) on our Reception Advice site - http://www.bbc.co.uk/reception/news

    Mike - I'm really sorry; somewhere in the process of pulling together the list for the blog, the line for Warwickshire got misplaced. You'll be pleased to know that an additional transmitter for Leamington Spa is in the plan, alongside one for Nuneaton.

    Roger - making changes to our existing transmitters is more difficult than you might think, not least because we face the difficulty of keeping services on-air whilst we make the changes and often co-ordinating those changes with other users of the site and neighbouring countries. We have done it in the past - Belmont was an example from last year, where we made changes to improve the coverage on the Lincolnshire coast - but it's been the exception rather than the rule to date. In your case, we're building a new transmitter at Findon; I know that's the other side of Littlehampton to you, but it might help a little bit.

    Bev - as you'll see, we're working hard on both improving coverage as well as extending it to new areas, so I do understand the point you make, and you'll appreciate that we are trying to address it where we can. It's important to be clear, though: the expansion of our network with this
    phase isn't anything to do with switchover - it's meeting a requirement set on us by the BBC Trust for this Charter period. We expect that further expansion is likely to be required if a switchover is to be achieved.

  • Comment number 10. Posted by Bev MARKS

    on 14 Oct 2013 19:28

    Whilst I appreciate the need to add transmitters to expand coverage to "above 97%", I am not made any happier that DAB is OK for my location (Battle, East Sussex). During high pressure conditions I receive "DAB-mud burbling", for lengthy periods, making it unusable. But VHF/FM is quite OK on the SAME radios...

    For someone, apparently in a DAB covered area (from Heathfield), I need to hear that field strength increases, from some transmitters, will also be part of the roll-out plan BEFORE BBC Network Radio VHF switch-off.

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by Briantist

    on 14 Oct 2013 19:12

    Hi.

    Tony Hall said last week “We should be treating them like owners not just as licence fee payers. People should not be saying ‘the BBC’, but ‘my BBC’, ‘our BBC.’ Our audiences demand to be involved and expect to participate. In the future they will talk to us and we will listen.” - http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/news/broadcasters/tony-hall-plans-personalised-bbc/5062271.article

    In the light of this --- perhaps a reply to my question would be in order?

    Thanks in advance.

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by Mike

    on 14 Oct 2013 17:05

    Great to see that Coventry will get a boost. It is unbearable listening to 6Music driving through the city. Perfect in the countryside nearby but dreadful in the city.

    Leamington Spa is also terrible. Will that be covered by Coventry, I wonder?

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