How To Get An FM Broadcast License

It seems everyone wants to run their own FM radio station – it’s one of the questions I’m frequently asked on this blog. Yet, there’s only so many FM frequencies available for use in any given area.

In Australia, the FM band ranges from 87.5Mhz to 108Mhz. That provides us with 20.5Mhz of bandwidth. Given 200Khz spacing for each station, you could theoretically get 100+ stations in this band. However, there’s interference and adjacent markets and all sorts of other things to consider. Spectrum planning is difficult work.

Obtaining an FM license is very hard, but not completely impossible. Here’s some options if you’re in Australia…

LPON

By far the easiest way to get a new FM license is by purchasing a Low Powered Open Narrowcast (LPON) FM License. These are issued at 87.6Mhz, 87.8Mhz and 88Mhz. The allowed power output is most commonly 1 Watt, but goes up to 10 Watts in non-residential areas.

Along with these three limited frequencies, there’s also physical separation requirements. If you’re using the same frequency as another LPON, transmitters need to be located 10Km apart. If you’re 200Khz separated (87.6Mhz and 87.8Mhz), 5Km is the mandated distance. If you’re 400Khz apart (87.6Mhz and 88Mhz), you can transmit from the same location.

In addition to the limited coverage area you’ll get from that 1 Watt of EIRP, the audience appeal of LPON services must also be limited. Generally LPON’s are used for “special interest groups” and other niche formats (starting yet another Top 40 formatted station probably isn’t an acceptable use of an LPON license). Religious and foreign-language services are common LPON license holders.

As with all Broadcast transmission licenses in Australia, the spectrum planning and license issuance is managed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The process to obtain an LPON goes a little bit this:

  1. Identify an available frequency in a specific location
  2. Get permission to install an FM transmitter and antenna in that location
  3. Submit an application form
  4. Pay an $394 application fee
  5. Participate in the auction process
  6. If you’re successful, pay the license fees
  7. Install your transmitter and start broadcasting.

The specific details (and forms) are available in the LPON Applicant Info Package. It’s worth taking a look at previous LPON allocations to determine the locations already used, and the prices paid.

Community

Community Radio licenses are still issued on occasion. These licenses are only available for incorporated associations, with a very specific set of eligibility requirements. Commercial entities and individuals are ineligible to hold a community radio license.

Community stations must serve a specific purpose (special interest groups, or general programming in a geographic region).

When deciding if to allocate a community license, ACMA considers:

  • the extent to which the proposed service would meet the existing and future needs of the community within the licence area
  • the nature and diversity of the interests of that community
  • the nature and diversity of other broadcasting services (including national broadcasting services) available within that licence area
  • the capacity of the applicant to provide the proposed service
  • the undesirability of one person being in a position to exercise control of more than one community broadcasting in the same licence area
  • the undesirability of the Commonwealth, state or territory or a political party being in a position to exercise control of a community broadcasting licence.

There are a number of restrictions and requirements for Community licensees, specified in the Community Broadcasting Codes of Practice. These include:

  • Must serve the licensed ‘community of interest’
  • Must have an open membership system
  • Play at least 25% Australian music
  • Play no more than five minutes of ‘sponsorship messages’ an hour
  • Every ‘sponsorship message’ must clearly identify the business as a financial supporter
  • Financial considerations can’t influence programming decisions

Community Radio TCBL

Before issuing a permanent (five-year) community radio license, ACMA may issue Temporary Community Broadcasting Licenses (TCBL). This is a twelve-month license, designed to test the capabilities (both technically and organisationally) of a potential Community Radio license holder.

Not so long ago, these TCBL’s were short-term (issued for weeks or months, not a year). Now, you can run a TCBL for a year before needing to renew or relinquish the license. As of May 2016, there were 98 TCBLs operating across Australia.

After successfully running a TCBL station and demonstrating your organisation’s suitability, you may apply for a permanent community radio license. These are much harder to obtain than a TCBL.

For an TCBL to be issued, there must be available spectrum, and space for another Community service in the License Area Plan (LAP). You must also satisfy all of the requirements for holding a full Community Broadcasting license.

Retransmission

If you hold an existing Broadcast Service Band license (commercial or community), and desire extended coverage, you may apply for an Analog Retransmission license. These licenses (also known as “translators”) are common for extending services into coverage black-spots.

They can also be used to extend a service into a different geographic area, if a standalone service isn’t sustainable. This isn’t as common, but does occasionally happen – particularly in small regional areas. However, the incumbent licensees in an area are always given the first opportunity to fill that void in local broadcast services – you are by no means guaranteed a Retransmission License even if there is available spectrum.

Buy an existing commercial station

This is the big end of town. If you have a lot of money to throw around, buying an existing commercial radio station may be for you. These licenses are high-powered, and don’t have as many restrictions as the other license types.

However, they’re very expensive. Some smaller regional stations may be bought for a few million dollars, but a large provincial or capital-city station can sell in the many tens-of-millions of dollars.

Recently, Sydney AM station 2CH sold for $5.56 million. Obviously there are additional costs on top of this initial outlay for a license – such as transmitter sites, ongoing license fees, facilities and staff.

Get a new commercial license

A commercial radio license is probably one of the least commonly issued forms of radio licenses in Australia. New services must be part of a License Area Plan (LAP), which is a formal planning document issued by ACMA. If a license in a LAP is free, ACMA may take it to Auction to find a buyer. This hasn’t happened for some time.

In 2004, the last available FM frequency in Sydney (95.3 fm) sold at auction for $106 million.

Launch a DAB+ Station

DAB+ is the newest top of free-to-air Broadcast license in Australia. In Australia, it is currently only available in capital cities and spectrum is only available to existing Broadcast Service Band license holders. DAB+ services transmit via a multiplex – in Sydney we have three (2x Commercial, and 1x National).

The audio bitrate in each city is divided between existing commercial and community license holders, with community services guaranteed 2/9ths of each city’s Commercial multiplexes (not National). The Commercial license holders get the rest. In Sydney, each analog commercial licensee has been allocated 128Kbps. However, licensees may further divide the bitrate into several lower-bitrate services. Much like Digital TV, license holders are able to provide multiple audio services from the one DAB+ allocation.

Assuming every service uses a 3A 1/2 Error Correction rate, a single multiplex can transmit up to 1152Kbps. By decreasing the FEC (Forward Error Correction), more services can be squeezed in. This is how Community Radio services are currently being squeezed into the 2/9ths allocation – albeit with reduced coverage than the standard 3A FEC.

This table (below) shows the standard FEC rates for DAB+. EEP-3A is the most common, effectively transmitting every packet twice in order to account for reception issues. Dr Gough Lui provides an interesting analysis of Sydney DAB+ services, with a chart showing the current FEC codes for every audio service.

Chart of DAB+ FED Error Correction Modes.

Given the technical options surrounding squeezing in additional services, it’s possible to lease DAB+ bandwidth from existing commercial licensees. The availability of this option depends on their willingness to part with some of their allocated bitrate, and your ability to pay their requested price.

However, it’s not currently possible to get a ‘slot’ of DAB+ all to your own without having an existing Broadcast Service Band FM or AM license. It’s worth noting that LPON’s, sub-metro’s and translators are not currently able to get any DAB+ bitrate – only ‘full’ Commercial, Community and National licensees.

Launching an Internet Radio Station

While perhaps not as fun as a a terrestrial station, this option is by far the easiest, cheapest and most accessible. It’s possible to setup and run a brand new radio station for only a few hundred dollars. You can pay $5/month for a cheap Linux streaming server, $275/year for the APRA Online Mini License, another fee for the PPCA non-interactive webcast license, and then however much it costs to run a PC with your music library and playout/automation software.

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I'm Anthony Eden, and I'm a broadcast technologist. I've been working in broadcast media since 2008 (getting my start in Community Radio while still at school), and developing software and websites for just as long. Right now, I work full time for Hope Media, and provide some freelance services through Media Realm.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_eden or Google+