Ofcom Quarterly Meeting: June 2020 - Notes

Matters arising from previous meeting

None

Community Radio Fund

The grant agreements have been issued. Ofcom is waiting for them to be returned. They are then batched up and then countersigned by Finance. Payments will then be issued the following week.

Ofcom tries to be as flexible as possible in terms of getting signatures from recipients and will accept an email confirming signing or agreement, or will accept a photo/scan for an agreement signature.

The remaining funds will be disbursed in the next 5 to 6 weeks. The Community Radio Fund group will be reconvened shortly to plan to spend the remaining funds to which the CMA will be invited.

Some details will be provided in Ofcom’s statement as to why applications were unsuccessful. A number of applications were not successful on the grounds of incomplete information submitted or the stations had healthy reserves.

It is recognised that the emergency Community Radio Fund is not new money and there will be fewer funds available in the Second Round.

Unsuccessful applicants should be directed towards the general feedback on the Ofcom website. Applicants can email communityradiofund@ofcom.org.uk for assistance before applying to the Second Round. Ofcom can only provide general feedback - they do not usually provide feedback at all - and they will not be able to give detailed feedback on individual applications.

The CMA requests from Ofcom as much detailed statistical information from the Community Radio Fund.

Update from Ofcom on Small-Scale DAB (SSDAB)

Ofcom plans to commence licensing of SSDAB from 1st September. This date was selected after consulting with those who submitted expressions of interest for the first round areas. A range of views was received but a majority opted for 1st September.

Ofcom still has plenty of work to do to get the First Round of SSDAB licensing ready by September and a fair bit of paperwork still remains outstanding. There will be a 12-week application window from September. As 10-12 rounds of SSDAB licensing are expected, it is anticipated that the complete round of licensing could take up to 4 years to complete.

Community radio stations are not required to take up a C-DSP (community digital sound programme) licence but there will be reserved capacity and favourable pricing for C-DSP licensees. C-DSP holders will also be able to access the Community Radio fund

The funding rules for community radio will also apply to C-DSP licence holders. The C-DSP station studio must be located in the broadcast area - that will be a requirement of the licence. Ofcom is required to ensure that a minimum of 3 slots per multiplex is reserved for C-DSP licensees. There will be a further exercise to review this and this requirement may change.

Round 4 analogue licensing process

All Awards have now been announced and the final 6 have been announced recently. 34 stations were awarded out of 43 applications. Round 4 is now completely closed.

A community radio station in Northampton missed their deadline to renew their licence but this is an exceptional circumstance. There are two reasons to open the licence for application:

To lose a BAME community radio station would be a poor outcome for the community at a time when community radio has such a vital role to play in converting important information about the epidemic to the local community.

The station concerned has voiced their intention to continue broadcasting.

Ofcom has been in touch with the station and their licence application is expected. The deadline is 3pm on 13th July. The licence is currently scheduled to expire on 23rd July.

Coverage improvements and extensions

Stations can re-apply at any time for a coverage improvement or extension if previously unsuccessful - the process is open at any time. Stations need to carefully prepare the technical background.

Ofcom currently has a backlog of WTA processing and paperwork due to the conclusion of analogue licensing and the work on the Community Radio Fund. Ofcom is also working on licence renewals. If stations have not received updated paperwork back from Ofcom, stations should be reassured that licence renewals are in hand.

The application form and guidance notes have not yet been updated on the website and Ofcom will look into that.

A previously unsuccessful applicant has been in contact with Ofcom to talk about making a new extension application and their application is in hand. This station has previously been rejected on technical grounds - that there appeared to have been some confusion or lack of clarity with regard to whether an extension or improvement was required. There is no limit on the number of applications to the coverage extension/improvement process that can be submitted and this station is encouraged to make a new application.

Ofcom’s preference is to always use spectrum efficiently and use it wherever it is available, However Ofcom has take into account issues such as interference or there may be no suitable frequencies available in an area. It is also a licence requirement to have continuous coverage throughout the entire transmission area. Ofcom assess each application using fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory criteria.

Ofcom has to strike fine balance between giving reasons and giving advice to unsuccessful applicants - as Ofcom cannot give advice. And repeated questions to Ofcom takes up valuable time and resources. Ofcom’s decisions are based on many years of experience and taking on board technical collaboration and international coordination. There are other third party interests that have to be considered such as those of commercial radio and the BBC - good evidence is therefore required to support any request for a licence extension or coverage improvement.

Supplementary questions

Licence renewal and confirmation of licence extension are dealt with in the order of licence expiry date - not on a first-come first-served basis. Ofcom will triage the earliest licence expiries first - applications are not addressed in the order of date received. Community radio stations should contact Ofcom in the event of any enquiry.

Licence renewals are given an 18-month notification. The CMA advised that funders and businesses need to know as early as possible that community radio stations will still be around for the duration of the project or funding period. Forward planning is required for grants and funding. Therefore licensees should be advised of their licence renewal as early as possible - the CMA recommended notifying stations 12 months in advance of the renewal date.

Ofcom will phone licensees if they have not heard back from them. However Ofcom currently has fewer resources to deliver the previous level of service. It is therefore the licensees responsibility to manage their licence renewals.

The COVID-19 emergency RSLs are scheduled to expire on the 1st of July. Ofcom is considering whether to extend the licences. As yet, no decision has been made. The Ofcom website does not accurately reflect all the emergency RSL stations as updating the website is a manual process.

The decision as to whether the emergency RSLs will be extended will be assessed on the basis of value provided and also the further duration of the COVID-19 crisis. However, Ofcom is considering longer-term RSLs for drive-in movies and church services. In this regard, Ofcom has received over 200 enquiries but licences would only be able to be granted with enforced social distancing measures. Ofcom is ready to accept applications now for this new class of short-term RSL but spectrum usage is in demand and the benefits delivered have to be assessed.

The CMA raised the issue of the procedures to investigate broadcasting breaches which appear to have been last updated in 2017. Ofcom advised to submit suggestions on improving the procedures by email to the procedures team.

Complaints had recently been lodged against two community radio stations who had contacted the CMA for help and our members have a few observations on the process. In the first case, a complaint should first be made to the community radio station to see if it can be resolved locally. Then if the complainant is not satisfied, they should then contact Ofcom who can take the issue further if required. Initially, complaints should be made within 20 days but Ofcom’s rules are currently contradictory as Ofcom requires a response from the station within 15 days. When the investigation is resolved, stations should be contacted first and not have to wait to see the outcome in the Broadcast Bulletin - this can cause stress and anxiety for stations under investigation.

Suggestions from improving the investigations procedures should be made to the Enforcement Programme Manager. It is a consultative process to change the general procedures and there are no plans currently to do so. This will be something to consider when things return to normal in the future.

Update from the sector the Community Media Association

The Community Media Conference will be postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19.

The Radio Hub has been distributing radios for the vulnerable and isolated people. This project has received Lottery funding and is successful for example dementia sufferers as music is a key reminder for them. 1,000 radios have been distributed in Basildon to date and 10,000 in total will be distributed by the end of July across the UK.

Any other business

Regarding the DCMS Digital Radio and Audio Review, Ofcom is separately feeding into this process which has been paused.