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Ofcom has thrown a lifeline to the local radio sector after approving the use of a new technology that allows tiny broadcasters to upgrade to digital at a fraction of the previous cost.

About 70 stations have tested the new technology, nicknamed “small-scale DAB”, that was developed by an Ofcom engineer in his spare time.

The switch from analogue to digital threatened to leave hundreds of tiny radio stations behind because of the prohibitive cost of upgrading, which can cost tens of thousands of pounds. The new system costs roughly £9,000 to implement, a cost that can be shared by a number of stations in a local area.

The local radio sector is at times associated with Alan Partridge, the fictional DJ played by Steve Coogan, but even he switched from analogue in his latest role on North Norfolk Digital. However, hundreds of other local stations including hospital radio and small ethnic stations in urban centres operate on a shoestring budget and have not yet managed to turn digital.

Neil Stock, Ofcom’s director of Broadcast Licensing, said: “This technology could open up a new, local dimension in digital radio. We’re confident that a UK wide rollout of these stations would be technically possible and commercially viable.”

Rashid Mustapha, a frequency planner at Ofcom, developed the technology behind small-scale DAB in his spare time using a laptop and a Raspberry Pi computer. The former Ministry of Sound DJ conducted field tests across the South Downs, broadcasting the sound of squawking seagulls, and found that the system worked.

Ofcom backed Mr Mustapha and convinced the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to support more formal trials that have taken place since June 2015.

The media regulator said it has since identified spectrum bands that could be used to roll out small-scale DAB across the UK. The government will consider Ofcom’s report to approve a permanent licensing system.

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