After more than a year of negotiations, a non-legally binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) has been signed by a wide range of stakeholders and multiplex owners, including the BBC, Ofcom and Folder Media's MuxCo.
Although there had been speculation that parties such as Global Radio and UTV Media might refuse to sign the MoU, both companies have now agreed to the terms.
Through the MoU, the industry and Government have agreed in principle to pay up to £21m to fund the build-out of local DAB to FM "equivalences" over the next five years, and have also committed to consider further funding if necessary.
Following the signing of the MoU, five new local multiplexes will launch (in Gloucestershire, Hereford and Worcester, Northamptonshire, north-east Wales and west Cheshire, and Oxfordshire). A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said these would bring new radio services to 1.25 million listeners.
Under the previous government, the DCMS was working towards a 2015 date for the majority of FM radio stations to switch over to DAB, but the current administration has failed to make a firm commitment in favour of switchover.
A spokesman for the DCMS said the MoU announced today (2 July), confirmed the Government's commitment to make a decision on radio switchover in 2013.
The signing of the MoU is the beginning of the first of a three-phase process. The Government will now ask Ofcom to establish the Joint Planning for Radio Group to produce plans outlining the infrastructure work needed to achieve FM equivalence.
If the Government agrees to the switchover and the parties agree a legally binding funding agreement, the process will move into phase two, to increase local DAB coverage to around 90% of that provided by FM.
According to figures from transmission operator Arqiva, 215 local and regional DAB transmitters broadcast across 46 local and regional multiplexes. It is expected that 150 additional transmitters will be needed to expand local DAB's reach to 90% of the UK.
Once the 90% criteria has been reached, the culture secretary, currently Jeremy Hunt, will be able to nominate a date or dates for radio switchover and enter phase three, which will build out local DAB coverage as wide as FM.
Communications Minister Ed Vaizey said: "This is a positive and significant step forward for the future of digital radio in the UK.
"As more and more listeners make the switch to digital, it's vital that we keep on increasing the areas able to receive a digital signal. Government, the BBC and the commercial operators are working together to ensure this happens."
The row over who would fund the rollout of local DAB first emerged when commercial radio trade body Radio Centre refused to attend a meeting in November 2010 after the BBC licence-fee settlement did not include provision for local DAB.
Today, the DCMS has also published a methodology report detailing how it worked out the cost benefit analysis of radio switchover and has asked for comment on the proposals set out in the report.
The following organisations have signed the MoU:
Switch Digital (London) Limited
Switch Digital (Scotland) Limited
UTV-Bauer Digital Limited
UTV-Bauer Digital (B&H) Limited
C.E. Digital Limited (jointly owned by Bauer Media and Global Radio)
Bauer Digital Radio Limited
UTV Media Limited (GB)
MuxCo North Yorkshire Limited
MuxCo North East Wales and West Cheshire Limited
MuxCo Wales Limited
MuxCo Lincolnshire Limited
MuxCo Gloucestershire Limited
MuxCo South Midlands Limited
MuxCo Surrey and North Sussex Limited
MuxCo Somerset Limited
Now Digital Limited
Now Digital (Southern) Limited
Now Digital (East Midlands) Limited
Now Digital (Oxford) Limited
South West Digital Radio Limited
The Office of the Adjudicator
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This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk