DAB radio, the next step into the age of broadcasting and a pillow of the government’s plan to finally turn UK media digital, but how close are we actually to getting DAB nationwide and when will we finally see the back of our beloved FM.
Whilst many organisations are against the great switch off and the end of an era, others in the industry believe, as a nation, we’re actually quite a bit behind with our plans.
Norway pull the plug
Earlier in the month Norway’s Minister of Culture announced that his country would be the first nation to pull the plug on FM radio. The big switch-off will take place in 2017, allowing the Scandinavians two years to complete a transition to digital radio.
Norwegians currently have 22 national channels broadcasting on DAB, compared to FM radio’s five. Uptake of the digital service is also believed to be at around 56%, a figure expected to escalate quickly over the coming years.
What is DAB?
So what does DAB actually mean and why is it the next step? DAB stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting and is a way of broadcasting radio digitally, through the FM (or AM) frequency range.
Digital signals take up far less space on the airwaves, giving you, the listener more station choice and freeing up some valuable RF space.
The digital radio signal also transmits data alongside the audio, enabling text and images to be broadcast with your music or news. This means it’s possible to transmit information with a song, like the title of a track, album, a picture or some lyrics. The same can be done for basic news stories that could scroll across the bottom of your radio screen.
DAB and the UK
Since the early 00’s, the UK government has planned for an eventual switchover to digital radio. Their hopes were to capitalise on the potential room digital has to offer and free up some of the valuable frequency space radio currently resides on.
As with digital TV, where the plan worked well through a rapidly developing market, DAB has dragged its heels a little.
Many people may remember the, now seemingly rather ambitious, plans to have DAB nationwide by 2013, with FM transmitters turned off by 2015. Well, unless the rollout comes pretty soon, it looks like we might miss that date.
In July 2010, the government launched a ‘Digital Radio Action Plan’ to ensure that if, or when, the market is ready for a switchover, the UK radio industry and its consumers would be fit for a digital age.
It was planned that the digital radio switchover would take place no less than two years after the government’s criteria were met. Amongst other things the three main criteria are:
National digital radio coverage to match FM coverage
Local digital radio to reach 90% of the population
50% of radio listening to be on digital radio platforms
In late 2013 Ed Vaizey, the communications minister, announced that the government would scrap the deadline for an FM switch off. After first moving the deadline from 2015 to 2018, the government could not meet enough of the criteria set out to green light the switchover.
However, the plans angered commercial radio groups like Bauer Media and Global Radio, who urged the Government to set a date and force more listeners to migrate. Many national commercial radio stations are keen to have a date in place so they can plan for a migration and decommissioning of their analogue equipment.
At the time of the proposed change, digital radio only accounted for around 35% of listeners in the UK.
Analogue switch off
Unlike digital TV, which bit the dust in 2012, analogue radio would not be completely wiped from the airways. FM will still be used for ‘ultra-local’ and community radio stations, however national stations like Radio 1 and Capital will migrate over to the digital platform.
Why switch-off FM?
The ‘FM spectrum’ is a rather crowded workplace, radio stations battle for less and less costly airwaves in bid to grad your ears.
Digital platforms like DAB and Internet Radio provides far more space for more stations. It’s good for the consumer, who gets a greater choice of stations and great for the broadcast industry who have more means to advertise.
Against the switch
Unlike digital TV the switch to DAB radio is not quite as simple and sensible as it sounds (no pun intended).
First of all, the government can’t make a whacking great profit by selling off the old radio spectrum (like it did for analogue TV) as the current plan is to keep using FM for ‘local radio broadcasting’.
Second, the switch to digital TV brought a tide of fun and exciting new concepts like HD, 3D, 4K etc… however DAB doesn’t really even get you ‘HD radio’. The sound quality from DAB is good in many areas however many stations on the UK’s current DAB structure are actually worse than FM (this could and would be theoretically upgraded in time.
Third. Are radio stations actually that popular, do we need a raft of new services? With the introduction of music on demand (Spotify/Pandora etc), podcasts and internet stations, will traditional radio still hold its popularity with the masses when we have so many more options?
What’s holding DAB back?
According to Ofcom almost half of UK adults (48.5%) say they now own a DAB digital radio device, however only 36.3% of all radio listening is actually done on a digital radio.
Although often better quality in terms of service, DAB reception is sometimes patchy across areas of country. If you’re listening to digital stations and reception is poor, the sound simply cuts out, which is pretty annoying.
For the problem to disappear, more transmitters need to be installed before a switchover date is finalised.
With initial costs of DAB higher than an FM equivalent, digital radio has suffered from simple lack of integration in many devices. Initial predictions in the late 00’s was that DAB would be integrated into cars, phones/tablets and personal devices by the 2015 cut off. Instead, many manufacturers have stuck with FM or skipped onto to internet radio.
DAB risks falling into the right tech wrong time area, starting down the barrel of its own extinction.
For what its worth, most people seems to think its a great idea, but has simply lacked execution.
What do you think, will DAB ever actually become the broadcast standard or will a resilient FM and new technology push DAB into the ‘friend zone’ of tech?