Jean-Marc Dubreuil, Programme Manager
Radio is extremely present in the daily life of the French population. Nearly 8 out of 10 people listen to radio at least once a day. What is changing though is the way in which people access radio in comparison to 10 or 20 years ago. While FM remains the preferred method of listening, new platforms of listening are emerging.
Between September and December 2014, the CSA (the French regulator), held a number of consultations to try and answer a decisive question: what is the place of RNT, (the French name for DAB+ digital broadcast radio) in this fast changing environment of radio?
The history of digital broadcast radio in France started more than 20 years ago, with the first experiments of RNT as early as 1993. However, the legal framework has only been established since 2004, with three distinct laws (in 2004, 2007 and 2009), that set the conditions for a deployment of RNT under the regulation of the CSA. The deployment principles are similar to FM, enabling the broadcast of existing and new programmes, pending authorisations. Additional consultations and reports have also nurtured the reflection on the actual deployment. One can only notice that the progress has been slow since the passing of the law: the opposition of the larger commercial networks and the development of the internet were raised. RNT was even regarded as obsolete by some. The Government also decided not to acquire any frequencies for the public service (Radio France). Despite these obstacles, the CSA authorised 14 multiplexes for broadcasting RNT which launched in June 2014 in Paris, Nice and Marseille. The question still remained about the strategy to deploy further RNT in France.
The CSA decided to publish a report considering lessons learned from other markets, as well as the experience from existing DAB+ broadcasts happening throughout France. Aimed at Parliament and the Government, the report was published in two stages; the first preliminary stage being submitted for public consultation received 38 contributions, including a submission from WorldDMB. The final report was adopted unanimously by the CSA Board and published on the 21st January 2015 giving a map of broadcast radio in France and recognising the slow evolution (and cost) of the using the internet to listen to radio. The report clearly emphasises the need for RNT as an access mode to radio. Its final conclusions call for a balanced deployment in order to offer choice (to the listeners and to the broadcasters) and the plan to engage in a number of consultations regarding a distribution model to cover roads. It sets out an updated course of action for the regulator. It wishes to allocate sufficient resources to local calls for applications, as desired by many players, so they generate a dynamic development of RNT while preserving the investment capacity of the broadcasters. Lastly, a few changes to the legal framework are recommended.
The report is certainly recognising that RNT is now entering a new phase while FM has reached its limits and the internet lacks the argument to replace broadcast. The local calls for applications will be given priority to areas defined according to three criteria: areas where experiments are deployed with positive results (Nantes, Lyon), frontier zones where FM coverage is limited (Lille, Strasbourg …), and population places showing a shortage of analogue radio offering. Dates for these calls should be published shortly. It is of utmost importance that the broadcasters and the listeners are not disappointed by the deployment or by the service. The CSA will also ensure that the opponents are given an opportunity to join the deployment of RNT while not raising barriers that would prevent its supporters from moving forward. Some public radio services could quickly find their place in RNT, without deciding now on its generalisation but focusing on complementary coverage to FM, a limited resource. This is a realistic and pragmatic deployment of RNT for now.
We can finally anticipate a mutation of broadcast radio in France. The available spectrum is there to be used. Broadcasters who wish to participate will be given a chance to test their model and assume their business risk. A positive (publicly supported) communication could be desired as “la RNT” serves the general public interest: a free, simpler, anonymous, high quality and regulated media. For the CSA, digital broadcast radio has its place in the different access mode of radio; it draws a promising future for radio. This is only the beginning for RNT in France.