Community Radio Coverage Improvements and Extensions – Advice for Stations in a Nutshell

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Introduction

Ofcom have invited  stations to apply for improvements to existing coverage and coverage extensions for community radio services.  Surprisingly they have not charged an application fee. This makes it “worth a punt” for stations to submit speculative applications.

Even if you are not considering making an application, do not ignore this invitation. Think if there are any CR stations within say 50 miles of you on the same or adjacent frequency to you. If they get a power increase and you don’t, there is a risk your listenable area may reduce!

In their invitation, Ofcom has defined two types of coverage enhancement, with two different sections in their application form:

  1. Coverage Improvement (closing date 23:59 hrs on 31 July 2018) – intended to mitigate interference, close coverage holes etc without changing the description of licensed area
  2. Coverage Extension (closing date 23:59 hrs on 18 September 2018) – an increase to coverage area to encompass a neighbouring town/area

Of course this distinction is a bit of a fudge. Most technical changes to improve coverage will result in a coverage extension.  The distinction, we think,  is when a new town or area is covered, rather than just an incremantal extension to your coverage all round.

Methods of Improving coverage

Someone is bound to argue this, but roughly, on average in most situations, in order of effectiveness the changes worth considering are:

  1. Site move.  Is your site in the best location possible?  Maybe that ideal site that was unavailable previously might now be available?  25w can go a long way when planned in the correct location.  Coverage predictions will help you determine the improvement
  2. Check/renew existing antenna system.  If your system is a number of years old it may well have experiencd moisture ingress (if not installed properly) and/or corrosion.  This could drastically reduce your coverage
  3. Additional infill transmitter. Arguably the best way to plug coverage holes, but can get expensive.  Coverage predictions will help you determine the improvement
  4. Make sure you are using your full licensed ERP and antenna height
  5. Antenna height increase.  Coverage predictions will help you determine the improvement
  6. Power increase.  Coverage predictions will help you determine the improvement
  7. Frequency change. If you are getting flattened by a big BBC transmitter or Classic then this could help a lot.  You could apply for a 1 day RSL to test a clear frequency to see if it makes a difference.  If you don’t play copyright music it will keep the costs down.  Coverage and Interference predictions will help you determine the improvement
  8. Add horizontal polarised signal if licensed to do so.  I will get flack for this from people who earn a living from selling and installing antennas.  But at the end of the day, as Scottie used to say to Captain Kirk, “Ye cannae argue with the laws of physics”!  Horizontally polarised signals travel (virtually) identical distance to vertically polarised signals.  The extra signal just helps within your coverage area by making it less critical how the receiving antenna is oriented.  It cannot extend your coverage area (unless your current antenna system is faulty).   Coverage predictions cannot help you determine the improvement – horizontal signals cover the same area as vertical signals!

Declaration of interest.  Associated Broadcast Consultants sell consultancy know-how, not kit or installation services.  We sell coverage and interference predictions and can perfom complex coverage a frequency planning activities following Ofcom methodologies.

Key Considerations

  • Have you already used your FM allocation to the maximum?  Are you using BOTH your vertical and horizontal power allocation, AND is your antenna at the height licensed?  If not, then you may already be heading for the “out” pile! (even though adding the horizontally polarised signal is unlikely to add much!)
  • Make sure you read the guidelines carefully and address the points they raise – you need to provide EVIDENCE of poor coverage, or EVIDENCE of the need for an extension
  • If your problem is interference, AND if you can stomach a frequency change, then that might be a more paletable option for Ofcom than granting a power increase.  Make sure you keep your options open if interference is your problem.  Our Ofcom Frequency Prognosis could help you shortlist candidate frequencies.
  • If coverage holes are your problem then make sure you provide evidence of them, especially if Ofcom’s MCA map indicates the coverage should be OK.  Evidence might be coverage plots from a qualified broadcast engineer, but equally they could be short YouTube videos taken in each location showing a car radio tuned to the frequency and poor/no audio, and/or a simple table with Latitude & Longitude and notes about reception or interference.  Also evidence of listener/advertiser complaints would be compelling evidence.
  • Consider cost-benefit ratio.  If you have a big 300w transmitter but are licensed for 25w, then a power increase could have low cost-benefit ratio (ie worth doing!).  But if you have a TX30 then maybe an alternative solution might be a better investment than a new transmitter (on the other hand your old transmitter can become a useful standby for emergencies).  Equally, additional sites can get expensive.

Read the Guidelines!!

Please read the guidelines in the invitation very carefully.  In particular for coverage improvements, note these requirements:

  • You can show us that your radio service is suffering from significant and harmful
    incoming interference or other forms of poor coverage in your licensed area;
  • and
  • The request will not result in a significant extension of the coverage area. We will
    assess this by looking at the size of any extra area that will be covered and the size of
    the population in that area. We ask you to make a realistic judgement about this
    yourself when you apply.

For coverage Extensions, note these requirements:

  • A description of the area you wish to extend existing coverage to include (e.g. the
    streets, council ward(s) or town), along with a map illustrating the area concerned (a
    map with the requested area marked/circled)
  • The reason why you are requesting an extension into this area
  • An estimate of the size of the population in the area you wish to extend into and the
    source of this information (e.g. local council statistics) and any evidence of demand or
    support for the service in the extended area
  • Whether the area or locality into which you wish to extend coverage has a relationship
    or affinity to the existing licensed area, and a description of that relationship or affinity;
  • Whether there are any exceptional circumstances which would justify an increase
    which would be reasonably considered to be “significant”
  • A short description of how the station will provide a community radio service for the
    target community in the extended area, in accordance with the characteristics of
    service requirements set out in paragraph 2.48 above
  • Any other reasons for the request that you wish us to consider

We can assume that failure to comply with the recomendations immediately above will give Ofcom an easy “get-out” to reject your application (and save them a ton or work)!

Next Steps

  1. Complete Ofcom’s  application form following the advice above and the guidelines in their invitation
  2. Submit a high quality, well reasoned application by or before the due date.
  3. Wait.  We would be amazed if anything happens before end September 2018
  4. Celebrate or:
  5. If the decison goes the wrong way, challenge it and ask on what grounds.  If it is on technical grounds, ask for evidence and all details possible.   ABC can investigate this further to verify (or not) their claim, and propose modification/s to the design that could comply and be accepted.
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Is Blocking or Adjacent Channel Interference the real problem with DAB reception?

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Aldi DAB

Photo: aldi.co.uk

This post on Blocking and Adjacent Channel Interference in DAB started-off as a review of the DAB-FM convertor being sold in Aldi Supermarkets (right).  But halfway through the review we changed our minds on the emphasis of the review!

As a result we suggest that Blocking on DAB receivers may be the real reason why so many people complain of “crap” reception of DAB services!

Below we give a brief review of this product, and then explain some of the theory of Blocking and Adjacent Channel Interference.

Aldi DAB-FM Convertor Review

This unit currently retails for £34.99.  This is hardly an absolute steal, but still not bad value if your car does not have DAB and you want to listen to the (less than there ought to be) services that are uniquely available on DAB.

Unboxing

The unit was smaller than we expected and seems nice quality.  This deal includes an antenna, USB lead and cigarette lighter plug for power, and a nice windscreen suction clamp.  Setup was an absolute doddle – no need to read the instructions – it’s all really intuitive.  The FM frequency on ours was preset to 87.6MHz. We consider is the ideal channel to use – most likely to be clear unless someone else nearby has one of these, or there is a local temporary RSL station that uses 87.7MHz.

Two quibbles at this stage:-

  1. The USB power cable is too short to (tidily) reach most cigarette lighter sockets we would have thought
  2. The aerial cable seems excessively long (introducing needless signal loss).

DAB Performance

Performance seems very good.  We would have said “excellent” had it not been for the issue we uncovered, and lead to this extended post.   We have heard lots of talk about inadequate reception on DAB – despite all the transmitter infills that have been built, and power increases to existing services.

So to test the sensitivity of the unit we decided to place the antenna deep in the footwell of the car instead of “properly” placed high up on the windscreen.  Interestingly the DAB Coverage map for the area of our tests (Thornbury, South Glos) indicates it is not covered!  Nevertheless, reception was initally perfect, even with the antenna in the footwell!

Then we started travelling round – the audio quality was good, but not astounding.  We think that is a limitation of the transmtted signal, not a reflection on this unit.  We were listening to Absolute Radio that transmits in mono (what a retrograde step!).  As a result, although the music was generally enjoyable, it all sounded a but lifeless and flat!

FM Performance

FM performance (transmitting the DAB-derived audio on FM for the car radio to receive) was good.  Audio quality was very good – much better than most “mp3 transmitters”.  Clearly this unit had taken the trouble to use UK/EU de-emphasis of 50µs.  Many/most personal FM transmitters on the market use the US 75µs standard – and as a result sound tinny.   The modulation also did not have undue noise or hiss like many cheaper units have.   We had read that the FM range on this device was very good.  However when we tested it it seemed actually lower than most “mp3 transmitters” we have tried.  Maybe that is because this unit fully complies with UK law that limits ERP to 50nW (Yes, that’s 50 billionths of a watt!).  Despite their CE marks, we suspect many mp3 transmitters on the market might be designed for the US market with permits 100uW and hence have greater range, but risk that knock on the door!

Reception Problems

We first noticed reception problems when we got within around 1km of a mast that transmits a different DAB signal for South West Regional Multiplex.  It is a much smaller transmitter than the one we were listening to (1kWatts versus 9kWatts).  Furthermore its frequency is well removed from the signal we were listening to.  Nevertheless we found that Absolute Radio suffered from dropouts from about 1km from the mast.  This got worse and worse as we approached, rendering it unlistenable within 500m.  This fact despite the area being on high ground (and shown as covered on the coverage map).

Interference seemed to get even worse when we relocated the antenna from the footwell to the windscreen.  This might seem counterintuitive, but if you read-on you will find out why that observation is important!  The problem this unit has is not with it’s sensitivity.  It’s the selectivity that is the problem which is leading to a specific type of interference called “Blocking”.

What is Blocking?

Blocking, in terms of radio communication, is when reception of a wanted signal (generally termed the Wanted signal (in our case Absolute Radio) is impacted by another signal on a different frequency, often quite a long way away in terms of frequency.

The layman would blame the interfering transmitter (“well it’s fine when you turn your transmitter off”).  Actually the problem is the design of the receiver.  It should be good enough to “filter-out” the interfering signal.  It should also turn its internal amplifiers down as low as possible to receive an adequate signal (termed Automatic Gain Control AGC).  If it does not then it can cause intermodulation problems etc.

What is Adjacent Channel Interference?

Adjacent Channel Interference (ACI) happens when the Wanted signal is impacted by a signal immediately adjacent (or sometimes a second, 3rd or 4th adjacent in bad situations).  An analogy could someone complaining about the noise from next door.  They may simply have noisy neighbours, or perhaps the construction of the party wall is not adequate, or perhaps they are unduly sensitive to noise – a matter of opinion!.

In radio, ACI is caused by two main issues:

  1. The technical design of the DAB system.  In order to squeeze in as many channels as possible (ie: increase spectral efficiency), there is only a very small gap between DAB channels (only 0.176MHz between each DAB block which are 1.536MHz wide).  For filter designers this is very challenging – it’s why “Mask Filters” are so big and cost so much on DAB transmitters to reduce ACLR (don’t ask, Google it!) and achieve that narrow gap.
  2. Receiver Design – in theory all receivers could all have a filter as good as the mask filter on the transmitter.  But that would mean DAB receivers would be extremely expensive!   So a compromise is made to make the filters “good enough” for the “majority” of situations.
DAB Channel Raster Mask ACI Blocking

DAB Channel Raster

ACI is more likely when the Wanted signal is weak and the interfering signal is strong.  Like with blocking, the interfering signal may get the blame, but in reality it is most likely caused by the receiver being used (unless the transmitter’s Mask Filter has gone out of alignment.

Conclusion

Armed with that knowledge and returning to our review of the Aldi DAB-FM convertor, we think that the interference we experienced was “Blocking” caused by inadequate filtering and/or AGC control in the unit.  We rule-out ACI, because the interfering signal is quite a long way away from the wanted signal in frequency terms.  Furthermore, “blocking” seems likely due to the fact the interference got worse when the antenna was relocated to a “better” location.   If the issue were not blocking it would not make any difference because the ratio of the wanted and interfering signals would more or less stay the same – they would just both get stronger.  But in this situation, having stronger signals just made the problem worse.  This indicates a non-linear phenomenon such as Intermodulation which, when bad enough causes blocking.  (We won’t try to explain Intermodulation in this lesson – Google it!).

We have also noticed similar problems (although not so extreme) when using a Volkswagen factory DAB radio passing a low power “Small Scale DAB” transmitter in Bristol.  Although only a sample of two, it indicates that blocking and adjacent channel interfence may be a real problem for DAB reception.  Because it is so counter-intuitive, perhaps it explains the “DAB is crap” claims amongst typical listeners!  It could even be made worse by well-intentioned people who install bigger and better antennas to boost reception!

So we propose some points to consider for listeners, equipment vendors and broadcast regulator Ofcom!

DAB Lessons to Learn

Listener Lessons

  1. If you have problems receiving a particular DAB service, don’t assume it’s due to a weak signal.  (It might be, but it might also be that signals are too strong!).  Try making the signal weaker – eg by moving the antenna so it has less view of the outside world or other such means.
  2. If the problem seems bad then complain!
  • Complain to the equipment vendor.
  • Complain to the broadcaster.
  • Complain to the Broadcast Regulator Ofcom.

If the problem is widespread, then they all need to know!

Equipment Vendor Lessons

  1. Pay closer attention to the design of your radios to avoid selectivity problems which can lead to listener disappointment through mechanisms such as ACI and Blocking

Ofcom Lessons

Probably the wrong sub-title because Ofcom is full of very clever people, but we’d like to suggest the following:

  1. If it has not been done already, test sensitivity and selectivity of a wide range of DAB receivers on the market – including the Aldi DAB-FM convertor and VAG factory-fitted radios.
  2. If the results described here are typical, then it could cause difficulty for the new tranche of SSDAB multiplexes when they eventually rollout.  Considering when transmitters are positioned in populated areas, then they might cause problems.   One possible precaution might be to oblige SSDAB multiplex operators to reserve a percentage of capacity to relay interfered services if there are complaints.  Indeed, having such “Flagship” services on the SSDAB mux may aid uptake and lisenership of marginal services.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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P275 – Christmas come early!

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Pira P275 FM Modulation Analyser

Look what those jolly nice people at Broadcast Warehouse have sent us to review! A Pira P275 FM modulation analyser. You may have seen our previous review of the older model P175 on this blog. We’ll be putting this one through its paces soon and reporting back here soon!

Having openly declared this – let us say that our promise of independence remains:

“Here at ABC we offer independent help and advice for radio broadcasters large or small. We sell consultancy know-how, not kit – so you know our advice is independent.”

 

Pira P275 FM Modulation Analyser

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FM Protection Ratio

How to find FM Spectrum for 100’s More Stations in the UK

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There are loads of opinions on how Ofcom plans the nation’s VHF/FM broadcast spectrum, but until now very few facts.

Therefore this year we have been on a journey to investigate the facts.  The result is this paper.  It is written from a technical, not a regulatoiry perspective, but (hopefully) is written in a fairly simple style which is accessible to non-technical people who have an appreciation of the basics of radio.

Here is the Executive summary – the full document is 19 pages long and available here.

This paper examines the impact of Protection Ratios on FM Broadcast spectrum planning in the UK. These parameters determine not only the reliability of reception, but also the ultimate capacity of that spectrum to deliver radio services.

There are many opinions on both sides about Protection Ratios, but mostly to date they have been opinions, not facts. This paper therefore seeks to establish some relevant facts to permit a more informed debate.

The paper only considers the subject from a technical perspective. It is acknowledged that there might be considerable political hurdles to change, caused by the protective instincts of incumbents. Nevertheless we are encouraged by Ofcom’s statement on its website:

“The Communications Act says that Ofcom’s principal duty is to further the interests of citizens and of consumers, where appropriate by promoting competition. Meeting this duty is at the heart of everything we do”

We believe that this paper presents sufficient evidence to support a review of the planning parameters used for FM broadcast in the UK. We recommend the following actions are taken:

1. Consider the evidence presented in this document on face value as a technical proposal, on its technical merits, without being influenced by political considerations, current technical policy or incumbents’ positions.
2. If technically valid, confirm, verify or investigate further (eg: what protection ratios do other broadcast regulators use, and how much discretion do they apply?)
3. Test the evidence – either by controlled trials, or inspection of situations where (accidentally or otherwise) the conditions for reduced protection ratios already exist in the UK.
4. Consider reducing co-channel protection ratio by 15 dB and 1st adjacent protection ratio by 22dB in a phased manner.
5. Review the evidence for divergence from ITU-R BS.412-9 for 10.6 to 10.8MHz relationships. If the evidence is not strong enough, revert to ITU-R BS.412-9 approach (-20dB PR on 10.7MHz only).
6. Implementation:
6.1. NOT to consider re-planning frequencies of existing stations – this is unrealistic for such a mature technology as FM broadcast, and total benefit would be unlikely to outweigh total cost.
6.2. NOT consider (yet) implementing on high power transmitters above (say) 500w – in order to minimise any widescale risk. Evaluate at a later date.
6.3. Consider implementing new PR’s for new services and technical change requests on low power transmitters below (say) 500w.
6.4. Implement any reduction in PR’s in more than one stage to minimise risk – maybe 6dB steps reduction over many months.

The full document is 19 pages long and available here.

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radio coverage extension prediction plot map

Advice on Ofcom Community Radio Coverage Extension

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Ofcom Consultation

On 28th April this year in its Consultation Response Ofcom indicated that after the current licensing round they would consider requests for Community Radio coverage extension for existing services (Paragraph 1.17).

We suspect that there is considerable underlying demand for such coverage extensions – and thus we suggest that maybe the principle of “early bird gets the worm” will apply.

Therefore we advise stations to start thinking about this task and be ready to move fast when Ofcom invite applications.

Ways to Extend Coverage

There are various ways to extend coverage – and the most effective solution will be different in each situation.  Possible ways are:

  • Power boost
  • Extend transmitter antenna height
  • Move transmitter site
  • Add relay transmitter/s
  • Antenna changes
  • A combination of the above

Ofcom Coverage Extension Process

Ofcom have not announced the process for this yet, but we can guess what might be involved:

  • Valid technical and community reasons for the coverage extension request
  • Evidence of local demand for the change
  • Technical analysis to check the coverage extension does not introduce unacceptable interference to other services

The first 2 steps you should start imediately – it takes time to gather such evidence.  You may need to conduct measurements in the field to assess coverage, and/or it takes time to gather letters of support etc.

Technical Analysis

The technical analysis is not so straightforward.  It is likely to require you to complete a form like this (link downloads a Word document).  To complete the form properly requires significant technical work which would need to follow Ofcom’s Analogue Planning Policy.  Those documents are quite daunting, even for experienced broadcast engineers!

Fortunately Associated Broadcast Consultants are here to help with your coverage extension project.   We have over 25 years experience in radio coverage and frequency planning.  We can conduct rigorous technical analysis that follows Ofcom’s Analogue Planning Policy.

Contact us to find out more!

 

 

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radio coverage extension prediction plot map

Advice on Ofcom Community Radio Coverage Extensions

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Ofcom Consultation

On 28th April this year in its Consultation Response Ofcom indicated that after the current licensing round they would consider requests for Community Radio coverage extensions for existing services (Paragraph 1.17).

We suspect that there is considerable underlying demand for such coverage extensions – and thus we suggest that maybe the principle of “early bird gets the worm” will apply.

Therefore we advise stations to start thinking about this task and be ready to move fast when Ofcom invite applications.

Ways to Extend Coverage

There are various ways to extend coverage – and the most effective solution will be different in each situation.  Possible ways are:

  • Power boost
  • Extend transmitter antenna height
  • Move transmitter site
  • Add relay transmitter/s
  • Antenna changes
  • A combination of the above

Ofcom Coverage Extension Process

Ofcom have not announced the process for this yet, but we can guess what might be involved:

  • Valid technical and community reasons for the coverage extension request
  • Evidence of local demand for the change
  • Technical analysis to check the coverage extension does not introduce unacceptable interference to other services

The first 2 steps you should start imediately – it takes time to gather such evidence.  You may need to conduct measurements in the field to assess coverage, and/or it takes time to gather letters of support etc.

Technical Analysis

The technical analysis is not so straightforward.  It is likely to require you to complete a form like this (link downloads a Word document).  To complete the form properly requires significant technical work which would need to follow Ofcom’s Analogue Planning Policy.  Those documents are quite daunting, even for experienced broadcast engineers!

Fortunately Associated Broadcast Consultants are here to help with your coverage extension project.   We have over 25 years experience in radio coverage and frequency planning.  We can conduct rigorous technical analysis that follows Ofcom’s Analogue Planning Policy.

Contact us to find out more!

 

 

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Ofcom FM Frequency Availability

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We’ve had LOADS of enquiries about FM frequency availability – it seems Ofcom want to “outsource” this activity whilst retaining the cards to make a final decision, and without informing consultants like us who could help.

We are sympathetic to the cause of new “challenger “broadcasters, but without the resources available to a big Government machine like Ofcom, it can seem difficult for stations to engage with them in a constructive way.

We believe the best way is to look at the situation through the “Ofcom periscope” and see the likelihood or not of a given request being viable according to their rules. BUT it’s difficult to give an honest, solid opinion because in addition to Ofcom’s tight technical restrictions (which we can model), they also have to apply judgement decisions – for example is a given interference area significant in terms of size or location? Also as a regulator they have to balance conflicting demand between (say) a Heart FM relay and a new local radio service for your area. We know where the balance should lie, but they have other external pressures!

We now think we may have developed a commercially-viable solution that strikes the right balance to estimate FM frequency availability in an area. We base our judgements upon the latest (current) Ofcom technical rules that they use. Some people may suggest that you to adopt alternative rules (like field measurements) to argue against Ofcom (good luck persuading a Government Quango to do that!). But if you want an honest, balanced judgement on frequency availability (using their rules) in your area, from the Ofcom perspective, then we can help.

FM Frequency Scan

What we CAN do:
– Analyse every FM frequency in your area and estimate incoming interference from every licensed transmitter in the UK
– Rule-out lots of frequencies that are blatantly illegal according to Ofcom rules (including many that may be non-intuitive that would not be obvious from on-site measurements)
– Identify the “most likely” or “least worst” available frequencies in your area
– Give an experience-based, plain English opinion on the viability of your chances, including modifications to your transmitter characteristics that may help in your application. “(eg: “No Chance mate”, “Difficult”, “Maybe”, “What’s the problem” “No problem” etc!)
– If you want to go to the next stage, we can offer a detailed analysis of a particular situation to challenge Ofcom on a particular decision. (This involves a LOT of work, so to reduce the risk of a negative result, we would advise you before starting if there were no chance)

What we CANNOT Do
– Any guarantee that a frequency we suggest is suitable is actually acceptable to Ofcom. They seem to apply additional criteria that we, (and you) do not know about

Some more detail available here.

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Here is the News – A Review of Radio News Providers

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Here is the news

Coming to you every hour on the hour
Here is the news
The weather’s fine but there may be a meteor shower

No prizes for recognising that 1981 song from Electric Light Orchestra!   But if you are a community, internet or small radio broadcaster, what are your options for a reliable news bulletin at the top of each hour?   In this blog we review the pros and cons of three services, and give our independent recommendations.

The three services we review below are:

  1. IRN/Sky – Well known provider that has been providing news bulletins since the start of UK commercial radio back in 1973
  2. FSN – Feature Story News – London and Washington-based organisation that produces affordable international news bulletins
  3. Radio News Hub – UK-based team of journalists producing updates around the clock for radio stations.

For each news service we assess the aspects that we think are most important for any UK-based station:-

  • Quality – relevance to UK audience, presentation, updates etc
  • Delivery – the ease and flexibility, or not, of delivery methods
  • Cost – there is a surprising variation!

IRN / Sky News

Perhaps the most well known radio news service, IRN/Sky deliver a ready to air hourly bulletin 24/7. The service also includes regular audio and scripts on entertainment news, finance,
technology and sport, including match reporting rights on the Premier League.

Quality

Quality is generally good – plus exclusively UK voices as far as we have heard.  However we hear regular complaints that their timeliness is not great – sometimes a second or two early or late starting, or finishing!

Delivery

The main delivery method is live satellite feed.  There are two alternatives:-

  1. Astra 2A – receivable on a normal 50cm Sky dish (in most of UK) and Sky box.  The audio is delayed by 2 ½ seconds
  2. Astra 4A – needs a larger 90cm dish in UK (which is more tricky to align correctly) but you could still use connect it to a standard Sky box.  Delayed by only ¾  second.

Both satellite feeds can be received on a standard Sky receiver (very cheap on Ebay) but you need to tune it in using the “secret” installer menu.  Also be aware that unless you have battery backup, when the power fails your standard Skybox will no longer relay IRN until you re-select it in the menus!

From experience we know that inexperienced presenters have difficulty in “hitting” the news on time with a live feed.  This is exacerbated because the IRN feed plays other audio almost up to the hour – so they cannot open the fader too early!

IRN do provide a ftp downloadable version of the previous hour’s bulletin.  It is easy to automate download of this file every hour, however it contains the time check from the previous hour!

Cost

The cost of IRN depends upon what type of station you are. The price for an online station is £2000 plus VAT per year. If however you are a charity or Community Interest Company then there is a nominal charge of £293.17 plus VAT per year. Rather strangely, Rajar stations (only) can take their Newslink package free of charge, which includes an advert after the end of the news – this is not open to stations who are not on Rajar.

 

FSN – Feature Story News

Founded in 1992 by journalist Simon Marks, FSN covers news and events as they occur via a network of bureaus in global news capitals across the Americas, Europe and Africa.

Quality

FSN offer a choice of 30 second, 3 Minute and 5 Minute world news updates.   Quality is quite good, although in our experience, on average we have found it to be slightly biased towards a more American audience.  Some of the news presenters have American accents, some British.   At weekends, although delivered hourly, it does not seem to change much, so by Sunday evening it can sometimes sound a bit “stale”.

Delivery

FSN news is delivered hourly online.  It is relatively easy to automatically download the audio files using wget, or a less geeky program as you prefer.   We found that used unedited, the news did not sound “tight” enough due to variable gaps at the start and end of the audio.  This is quite easily fixed by using some software called mp3splt which can automatically top and tail the audio based upon your preferred silence threshold.

Cost

FSN’s news bulletins are prices at $15 per month – for that you can choose which one you broadcast, and have rights for on-air and online.

Radio News Hub

Launched in 2015 as a competitor to IRN, Radio News Hub provide news, sport, business and showbiz bulletins to client stations around the UK and around the World 24×7.

Radio News Hub provide an English speaking service from a team based in Leeds.  The on air team consists of Jamie Fletcher (ex Real Radio & Sky Sports News Radio), Stephanie Otty (ex The Pulse & Sky Sports News Radio) and Jon Francis (ex Teamtalk & Sky Sports News Radio).

Quality

The bulletin is delivered hourly as a 192kbps mp3 file, which is generally good enough quality for voice.  The quality of delivery is very good, with English voices.   The news bulletin is 1 minute long followed by a 30 second advert.  There are options available for stations that do not want to have the advert and/or community stations that cannot take adverts.

Delivery

Delivery uses Shared Dropbox folder, which in our experience is the nicest, easiest way to receive such content.  The Dropbox folder will sit locally on your computer and will sync automatically at ten to each hour. Most playout systems can be configured to pick up the news.mp3 file each hour from the same folder.  The sample provided to us did not contain undue silence at start or end, so would not need the topping and tailing stage mentioned above.

Cost

The Radio News Hub service costs from £14.99 per month for a one-minute bulletin which contains a 30-second ad.  For that price you also get 10-second national weather + one minute of sport, business and showbiz twice daily Mon-Fri.  So all in all quite good value for around 20 hours of quality audio a month.   Extra premium services are available such as Weekend Sport £5.99 per month, Extended 30 second weather £5.99 per month and International News Bulletins for £49.99 per month

Summary

The best choice of news provider will depend upon where your priorities lie.  On one hand, you could say IRN – although it’s expensive, a bit like IBM or Ford, you won’t get sacked for making that choice – they have a proven track record.  On the other hand cost may be king and you’ll select FSN – but remember as in most things in life you get what you pay for!   Radio News Hub looks like it might have hit the optimum compromise for a news service.

Radio News Comparison

Quality – WINNER – Radio News Hub

– IRN and Radio News Hub lead the pack with entirely British voices, best suited for a British audience.  If we had to choose one, we’d select Radio News Hub because being file-based it can be delivered when needed, rather than with a variable delay around the top of the hour with IRN feeds.

Delivery – WINNER Radio News Hub

– Running a small radio station is hard work, so you want to make things as easy as possible.  Hands-down winner for convenience is Radio News Hub.  They use Dropbox which is an elegant and simple solution.  Definitely much easier than fiddling around with satellite hardware and secret installer menus, and easier than using command-line programs like wget and mp3splt on the FSN files.

Cost – WINNER FSN, Radio News Hub close second

– Unsurprisingly the incumbent IRN is the most expensive at £351 per year (including VAT).  The challenger service provided by Radio News Hub is quite a lot less at £180 per year.  FSN is the cheapest at £145 (exchange rate 10 April) – but obviously with some currency uncertainty.

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Finding an FM Frequency

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Introduction

We are often told by Ofcom that “there are no available FM frequencies” in an area. We find this an unfortunate situation which can often seem impossible to address. Yet life is seldom that simple, as with all things in life it depends upon what assumptions we use, and what engineering solutions we consider. Here at ABC we contest that in most situations we can find a technical solution to such an assertion. Although we admit that, in the limit, things may be difficult and such solutions may not always be economically or practically viable. But in most situations we can suggest a realistic solution.  IF the regulator is willing to consider it.

We recommend a three-step approach:

1. Assess frequency availability in general, following Ofcom guidelines
2. Verify clear frequencies locally on a radio in several locations or driving around in the target area
3. Analyse the best frequencies in detail, assessing interference from and to other radio services

Step 2 can be done by anyone, steps 1 and 3 need to be done by a radio engineer with access to the right tools.

The ABC Approach

Here at ABC we have recently developed a method to perform step 1 that is very similar to the approach demonstrated by Ofcom in a meeting a couple of years back.  But we believe it has an important enhancement. We believe there is an inherent weakness with the Ofcom approach, because their initial frequency scan is performed from the local broadcast site. By nature the broadcast site is in an elevated location, so it will tend to exaggerate incoming interference compared to the typical listener location.  Real listeners are normally in a town/city centre, low down and amongst building clutter.  We don’t care if sheep on the hillsides get interference!

The ABC approach considers a realistic location in the centre of the target coverage area. We then consider incoming signals from EVERY licenced FM signal in the UK using the latest Ofcom database.  We also take account of first adjacent, second adjacent and +/- 10.7MHz signals as specified in Ofcom recommendations.  Of course we also consider transmit aerial height, aerial pattern and receiver aerial height.  Oh and we factor-in the (controversial to some) Ofcom/ITU protection ratios.  The result is an understanding of the total interference environment in an area, as opposed to on-site snapshot frequency scans that can only be done in a limited number of locations.

Our Results

Our results are displayed as a chart to aid selection of an appropriate frequency.  When all the rules are factored in,we’re often surprised how many of the 205 possible channels get ruled-out from use.  For example see below example for the city of Gloucester – a relatively “quiet” area for FM spectrum (click to enlarge):

Chart showing FM spectrum utilisation in Gloucester

The red columns are channels that we rule-out by Ofcom’s +/- 10.7MHz rule.   Ideally, for full protection a channel we would have a total signal power less than the lower blue line, although the upper line is acceptable for Community radio according to Ofcom rules.  Using this tool we can show that although the spectrum is fairly busy, there are still several potential frequencies.

The Next Step

If we choose 95.4, we can check the feasibility using ABC’s Frequency Viewer tool here:

Map showing utilisation of 95.4 MHz and adjacent channels

This tool indicates that the closest co-channel interferer is Radio Berkshire, but with only 500w at 25m height.  It also displays potential adjacent channel interferers – in the map above we have clicked on one and see that it is Radio Nottingham from Fishpond Hill with 1kW on 95.5.

The Final Stage

Using this information, combined with local drive-round surveys, the next step would be to perform a detailed interference analysis with the most significant surrounding radio services. This involves modelling the “Source” and “Interferer” transmitter in detail in a coverage modelling tool.  Then we’d calculate for every pixel (normally 9 million) whether or not the required Ofcom protection ratio was met.

This last stage involves significant effort, but it is worth the effort – we’ve successfully used this approach to challenge Ofcom’s preliminary allocation and secure double the power for a station!

ABC have over 25 years experience in this sort of analysis – contact us for more information!

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