Northern Ireland news

Call for European Union to intervene over 'unacceptable' cross-border digital radio coverage

Clear digital radio coverage on car journeys across the border has proved elusive for motorists. Picture by Hugh Russell
John Monaghan

THE European Union should intervene to address "unacceptable" cross-border digital radio coverage, an MP has said.

Sinn Féin's Barry McElduff said given advances in technology, reception issues faced by people are "not acceptable in 2017".

While RTÉ television channels are now available to almost all homes in the north, its digital radio services reach only a few areas.

Motorists travelling on the M1 from Dublin towards Belfast report signals dropping almost immediately after crossing the border.

And almost half of the Republic is also unable to receive digital services from the national broadcaster.

Regulators have said that there is "no blocking system" in place at the border, but accept that motorists will lose signal depending on their location.

Ofcom, which monitors broadcasting in the UK, said it was "not aware of any mechanism which would block a transmission of a radio signal in a particular jurisdiction".

But Mr McElduff, MP for West Tyrone, said there should be universal access to the services.

"Ireland is a small country with two systems of everything including telecommunications provision, and all the problems that causes for people in the border corridor," he said.

"It is high time that, with the help of the EU, these telecommunications problems are addressed and overcome.

"In 2017 it is not acceptable that the authorities are unable to address this."

Newry, Mourne and Down SDLP councillor Gillian Fitzpatrick also said the constant drop in coverage was "annoying" for motorists.

"Before you even get to the Carrickdale Hotel (in Co Louth) it is cutting out. It is annoying. On the way back from the Republic it seems to be worse," she said.

It is understood that when setting frequencies for new stations, regulators in both jurisdictions liaise closely to ensure there is no clash, although many smaller stations are not yet available on digital radio.

There are eight main digital radio transmitters across the north, and two smaller 'relay' transmitters, with the Republic served by five transmitters.

A transmitter in Camlough, Co Armagh was installed within the last year to try to strengthen the signals.

While around 90 per cent of the UK's population can receive digital radio, just over half of those living in the Republic can do so.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the British government agreed to the construction of a new transmitter at Divis outside Belfast for the transmission of TG4, the Irish language TV station, in the north.

In 2012, RTÉ One, Two and TG4 also became available on Freeview following the digital TV switchover, making the stations accessible to around nine out of 10 people in the north.

However, there is no such obligation to make radio services freely available.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the regulatory body in the Republic, said there is "no blocking system in place" for DAB (digital audio broadcasting) services but the distance from transmitters and mountainous terrain affect reception.

A spokesman said: "There are several DAB transmitters in Northern Ireland which optimise coverage to Northern Ireland, but not necessarily into the Republic. Car radios will be able to receive UK DAB signals in the Republic, but only close to the border.

"On the M1, for example, the signal would decrease rapidly when you drive south from Newry due to the mountains in the area, while the signal may travel further in other areas due to flatter terrain."

The Department of Communications in Dublin said only around 54% of the Republic's population - "predominantly in Cork, Limerick and the greater Dublin area" - can receive digital radio.

"The department is not aware of any blocking system and, while there are no plans at present to roll out DAB services on a national basis, the BAI will continue to monitor and consider the potential for the development of digital radio in Ireland."

Ford Ennals, the chief executive of Digital Radio UK, the organisation which is overseeing the digital switchover, said that while there was some overspill of signals into the Republic, it was "not intentional".

He told The Irish News: "There are about 50 stations available on DAB in Northern Ireland and a lot more transmitters have been installed to increase the strength of the signal across the UK.

"There is some overspill into the Republic but that is not intentional, it is not part of Ofcom's remit to extend into the Republic, and yes, if they are doing their job then that wouldn't be the case."

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RTÉ has said it is "currently exploring" ways to improve its digital radio coverage in the north, with only a small percentage of people able to access its stations.

Although the reception of television services improved greatly following the digital switchover in 2012 - with around 90% of homes in the north now able to access RTÉ channels via Freeview - there has been no similar progress on radio.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, moves were put in place to extend transmission of TG4, the Irish language TV station.

But a map of RTÉ's current digital radio reach only shows limited coverage across parts of south Armagh, south Down, east Tyrone and Derry, via a transmitter at Claremont Cairn in the Cooley Mountains in Co Louth.

A spokeswoman for the broadcaster said: "RTÉ has stated that it will not proceed any further with national digital radio roll-out until the regulatory structures and roll-out plans are in place for Ireland’s commercial radio broadcasters.

"RTÉ Radio and its partners in both the commercial and regulatory industry in the UK and Ireland are currently exploring ways in which it can advance the platform from its current position.

"This ongoing project includes the carriage of RTÉ Radio services in territories regulated by the United Kingdom regulator OFCOM."

There was anger in 2014 when RTÉ planned to scrap its longwave 252 service, the only frequency on which many listeners in Britain and the north can receive a clear signal for Radio 1.

After a campaign, which included the picketing of a St Patrick's Day parade in Manchester and an intervention by the Irish Catholic bishops, the switch-off was postponed until May this year and then again until June 2019.

RTÉ had initially defended the decision, claiming the money it would save annually would help meet other running costs while pointing out that Radio 1 is available on digital platforms.

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