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Brisbane's DAB+ Dilemma: The Gold and Sunshine Coasts 'unwanted visitors'

Why is it that the worst of human nature seems to say it’s OK to throw our most vulnerable of species to the wolves?

If you don’t think that’s true, just take a look at the ongoing battle over Brisbane’s digital radio coverage.

When digital radio finally raised its head in Australia, commercial stations in Brisbane, as in all other capital cities, banded together to form a DAB+ consortium, to operate the city’s multiplex.

It was decided the antenna array would be located on one of the TV towers on Mt Cootha; the perfect location, you’d think.

Designs for the installation were supposed to ensure the DAB+ coverage complied with all the specifications laid down by the regulator.

From the outset, the signal’s southern boundary would be near Beenleigh, the half way point to the Gold Coast, and, approximating the southern boundary of the existing Brisbane licence area plan (LAP) for the analogue stations.

Everybody knew there’d be some minor overspill; much of Australian radio has been built on ‘fortuitous’ coverage.

To the various stakeholders, from both in and outside the Brisbane licence area, that arrangement sounded pretty reasonable in theory.

With everyone as satisfied as they could be, the installation went ahead.

No sooner had the ‘GO’ button been pressed on the DAB+ transmitter, than major problems became glaringly obvious.

First off; from the top of Mt Cootha, the digital signal went like ‘the clappers’, even on half power of 25Kw.

What was supposed to roll off at Beenleigh, to protect the Gold Coast market, was reportedly still going strong close to the NSW border.

It was ‘fortuitous’ coverage, on steroids.

Local Gold Coast stations cried ‘foul’, and, you’d think, with very good reason.

Not content with making itself ‘at home’ on the Gold Coast, the Brisbane DAB+ signal also travelled north, saturating the southern end of the Sunshine Coast.

While we all like to think of the Gold and Sunshine Coast regional operators as easy-going sun-seekers living constantly in holiday mode, they’re still businesspeople, and, they’ll ‘squeal like a pig’ when they’re getting shafted, whether it’s intentional or otherwise.

So, the planned 50Kw signal for Brisbane was put on half-rations, while the technical boffins tried to sort the issue out.

Yet, even with just 25Kw of radiated power, 24 Brisbane digital signals could be clearly heard on car radios in the middle of both Southport and Caloundra.

As far as many of the regional operators were concerned, this was not the deal that they’d been briefed on.

However, keeping the DAB+ signal back at half the authorised power created a whole bunch of local reception issues in metropolitan Brisbane.

Listeners in some of the city’s bayside suburbs began reporting ‘blackspots’; areas where the field strength was too weak for in-building reception.

By this point in the rollout, members of the consortium must have been feeling like there weren’t enough technical fingers available to plug up the holes in the dyke.

At some point, you then have to ask yourself ‘how could digital radio for a relatively flat city, like Brisbane, get so screwed up or were there factors at play that were beyond their control?’

To top it all off, the Brisbane consortium is now lobbying for their DAB+ service to be increased to its full power of 50Kw.

In the strict sense of the law, they’re probably entitled to use the full power authorised on their licence, regardless of the how it affects other operators, but at this point they’re holding off, hoping the industry can work out a solution.

While spraying 50Kw of digital signal off the top of Mt Cootha may make a lot of listeners very happy, during their commute to and from the north and south coasts, in a technical sense, it’s likely to produce a whole set of new issues, not the least of which is creating an even larger coverage area.

Allowing Brisbane’s DAB+ consortium to enjoy a digital footprint that could extend from Noosa to Coolangatta would, without doubt, adversely affect the smaller and more vulnerable regional stations serving the coastal markets.

Being exciting holiday destinations with rapidly growing populations, freeways and large shopping complexes, sometimes makes it hard for many of us to believe that the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast are really regional areas, but, as far as ACMA is concerned, they certainly are.

… and the radio stations that cover these areas are regional stations with defined service areas, which, they alone, are entitled to service.

In this country, commercial radio stations operate under a system of defined licence area plans (LAPs).

You can think of these as exclusive territories, like franchisees are granted when they buy into a Hungry Jacks or Harvey Norman concession.

You don’t find two Harvey Norman stores next to each other, and, adjacent area operators aren’t allowed to openly pirate each other’s territories in search of customers.

Honor amongst … well, you know … retailers.

Same thing goes for commercial radio, and, regional radio stations, in particular.

While there are often multiple operators licensed to cover each LAP, and that’s certainly the case for the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast markets, they don’t have the right to intentionally aim their signals into neighbouring LAPs, like Brisbane.

In fact, there are very strict limits to overspill and the percentage of potential audience that can be covered outside the LAP, before ACMA will start waving a big stick.

Nobody disputes ACMA’s right to do this; in fact, that’s their job and it keeps the industry on the straight and narrow.

However, to date, it seems nobody has taken a serious look at overspill for digital radio, because everybody had previously believed geo-fencing was going to be infinitely controllable with digital.

Guess that little theory isn’t working out so well for them now in Brisbane!

If the Brisbane consortium gets its 50Kw up and operating, and the outcome is not successfully challenged by those stations affected in adjacent LAPs, then a precedent could well be established for those playing in the digital radio arena, that may be extremely difficult to overturn at a later date.

Worst case: digital radio could degrade into a minefield of litigation, or, a free-for-all grab for territory through fortuitous coverage with every digital consortium pushing its adjacent area boundaries.

Either way, if the industry can’t sort it out, then the responsibility will ultimately fall right into the lap of the regulator.

I believe that any hint of turning a blind eye to the ‘accidental’ creation of a super-sized digital radio coverage area across much of South East Queensland, at the expense of the regional operators, could well put ACMA right in the political cross-hairs, and, that’s somewhere no government authority wants to find themselves.

While most of the Brisbane stations would be thrilled to the back teeth with any additional coverage area, I doubt that Southern Cross Austereo would be amongst them.

While superficially, SCA may be happy to see wider coverage for its Brisbane services through the Mt Cootha multiplex, the company also has two Gold Coast stations, whose revenue base needs protecting.

The commercial reality is that any extended coverage area from Mt Cootha, probably won’t see additional revenues flowing to the capital city digital stations; it’s just the nature of the digital beast!

On the flip-side of that equation, having 24 additional commercial radio services flooding into the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, could severely impact local and national revenues for the 8 regional stations, making their ‘bread and butter’ from solely servicing those two markets.

We’ve all seen what happens to the once-affluent local hardware store when they roll out a Bunnings.

Allowing the overspill from Brisbane to continue, or even grow with higher power, would be radio’s equivalent.

I would like to think that SCA will be saddling up the horses and joining the posse to cut off ‘them Brisbane boys’ at the Beenleigh Pass, as was originally intended.

The Gold Coast stations have been trying to protect their territory from various interlopers for many years.

However, the influence of these players will have only been a minor annoyance in comparison to the Brisbane stations, should they manage to get a strong digital hook into the Gold Coast market.

This problem also exists on the Sunshine Coast, but to a lesser extent.

Currently, the digital signals from Brisbane are a little weaker than on the Gold Coast, so at this point, listeners may be less inclined to lash out and buy digital receivers.

Nonetheless, when local digital services arrive on each of the coasts, if no restrictions have been enforced to properly limit the coverage of the Brisbane services, the out-of-area issue will only grow as more people sample the range of additional programming.

Maybe it’s just me playing ‘simplistic’ engineering in my own mind, but, the technical issues at the root of these problems, seem relatively easy to fix.

At the DAB+ multiplex frequency, like FM, coverage is pretty much line of sight.

Rule of thumb: antenna height gives you coverage, additional power increases the field strength within that coverage area.

Surely, a recalculation can be made on the proper height for the DAB antennas on the Mt Cootha tower to ensure roll-off of their coverage, relatively sharply, at Beenleigh.

Then, the Brisbane stations could utilise their full 50Kw of power within that service area to ensure there’s adequate field strength in those metropolitan areas, that are currently experiencing ‘blackspots’.

Doesn’t seem like rocket science to me, but I’m sure the powers that be will tell us ‘it’s not that easy’.

One way or another, ACMA has a clear responsibility to protect those regional stations that are likely to find themselves greatly disadvantaged.

The regulator’s message needs to be loud and clear to the industry, stating that ACMA won’t allow smaller stations in adjacent LAPs to be ‘thrown to the wolves’, and, that so-called fortuitous coverage on an excessive level in the new digital radio realm is a ‘no go’.

All the current operators have paid a great deal of money to acquire the commercial radio licences for the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and, they deserve adequate protection from their regulator.

Right now, there’s a new Sheriff in town following the appointment of Nerida O’Loughlin, as Chair of ACMA.

Perhaps, sorting out the Brisbane DAB+ issue as a priority, and then ensuring that all stations across Australia, particularly the most vulnerable, will be protected in the future from any form of predatory attack, would be a very smart way for her to gain industry respect and put a definitive stamp on her new role.

It would, however, be prudent for radio’s new ‘Sheriff’ to keep her gun-belt buckled and both guns loaded, just in case the message gets lost in translation.

I, for one, would hope she never has to use them.

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