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

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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