Radio in smaller regional communities could soon undergo a major change with a proposal to convert AM to FM for commercial radio broadcasting services in an initial six, single-licensee regional licence areas.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority is seeking public comment on a proposal to revise its approach to considering requests for AM–FM conversion.
‘Previously the ACMA and its predecessors have only considered AM–FM conversion of commercial radio broadcasting services in very exceptional circumstances,’ said ACMA acting Chairman, Richard Bean.
‘The ACMA’s revised approach has been developed in response to a request by the Minister for Communications to prioritise planning for AM-FM conversions in certain smaller regional radio markets where reasons to hold back do not apply.
‘While there is still an important place for AM transmitters in Australia—for example for the provision of wide coverage services—FM has the potential to deliver a range of benefits including improved audio quality, reduced signal interference and lower costs.’
Commercial Radio Australia, chief executive officer, Joan Warner said:
“These are solus markets with one commercial operator where difficulties with AM transmission have prevented the operator from offering an optimum service. A conversion to FM will address that. Regional broadcasters choosing to convert in some markets see this as an interim step while policy issues are resolved and planning is underway for DAB+ rollout to regional Australia.”
The proposed revised approach is contained in the A new approach to AM-FM conversions and in-fill transmitters for commercial radio broadcasting services consultation paper.
At the same time the ACMA is consulting on AM-FM conversion proposals in Exmouth, Paraburdoo, Karratha, Tom Price and Port Hedland in Western Australia and in Broken Hill, NSW.
The closing date for comments on the proposals is 5:00pm Friday 2 December 2016.
The peak radio industry body Commercial Radio Australia (CRA) approached the Minister in January 2015 with the proposal to convert AM services to FM in selected regional solus markets – single-licensee markets in which there are no separately-owned FM commercial stations, against which the converted licences might receive an unfair advantage.
A conversion of a commercial radio broadcasting service from AM to FM without additional licence fee arguably delivers an advantage to the AM licence-owner over any FM radio competitors who may have acquired their FM services commercially or from the ACMA in a previous price-based allocation. However, this is not a consideration in the many small solus radio licence areas in regional Australia where the only two commercial radio broadcasting licences are held by the one licensee.
After consideration of CRA’s request, the Minister for Communications, Senator the Hon. Mitch Fifield, asked the ACMA to give priority to undertake planning and licensing work necessary to facilitate AM-FM conversion requests in regional solus markets, in accordance with the ACMA’s statutory obligations under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.
The Minister asked that the proposed conversions should not adversely impact existing FM radio services or result in any significant coverage differences for radio listeners within the affected licence areas.
The regional areas in Western Australia and Broken Hill represent the first markets considered eligible for AM–FM conversion, where available FM frequencies for conversion were the easiest to identify and stakeholder concerns are likely to be minimal. If the ACMA adopts the approach proposed in the consultation paper, proposals for AM-FM conversions in the other regional solus markets will follow.
In addition to the proposed AM-FM conversions, the ACMA is proposing other variations to the licence area plans for the relevant regional licence areas. These variations are primarily to modify technical specifications and make spectrum available for a number of national, commercial and community broadcasting transmitters.
The proposed variations to radio services to implement this revised policy are contained in Draft Variations to Licence Area Plans for Remote Western Australia radio, Carnarvon radio, Broken Hill radio, Karratha radio, Port Hedland radio and Toowoomba/Warwick radio.
More information on the ACMA’s broadcasting planning process and licence area plans can be found here.