Local radio stations could begin broadcasting nationwide after Ofcom completed “highly successful” trials of a low-cost DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) system.

Ofcom said the ‘small-scale DAB’ setup trialled allowed local and community stations that previously broadcast on analogue AM and FM to join the DAB platform using freely-available software and equipment costing from £9,000.

The regulator’s director of broadcast licensing Neil Stock said: “This technology could open up a new, local dimension in digital radio. We’re confident that a UK wide roll-out of these stations would be technically possible and commercially viable.

“Our trials have enabled groups of community and local commercial radio stations to work together, enabling new stations to serve local communities right across the UK.”

The technology

Small-scale DAB in the UK was pioneered by Ofcom engineer Rashid Mustapha who in 2012 tested the concept by installing a digital radio transmitter on a Brighton roof-top.

According to the regulator, the trial used inexpensive computers, open-source software released by the Communications Research Centre in Canada, and a ‘software defined radio’ module, to replace many of the dedicated hardware components used in traditional DAB transmission systems with lower cost alternatives.

Ofcom provided each triallist with a largely standardised set of transmission equipment, including:

  • Up to six audio source encoders comprised of single board computers and low cost USB sound devices
  • A multiplexer in the form of a small desktop PC
  • A modulator
  • A linear VHF power amplifier
  • A 250 watt mask filter
  • A transmitting antenna and feeder cable
  • Other miscellaneous equipment including a network switch and an uninterruptable power supply

Ofcom has been testing small-scale DAB since June 2015, with 70 local stations broadcasting on trial licences around the UK with funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Ofcom has now identified space in the airwaves that could support a UK-wide roll out of the technology, using spectrum bands previously occupied by business radio.

It said that re-using these bands could pave the way for hundreds more stations to join the digital radio revolution.

DCMS will now consider the findings of Ofcom’s report, which was published today.

Ofcom said it is ready to work with the government to enable small-scale DAB stations to be licensed permanently.