Digital radio: Signs of a tipping point?

Monday 24 October 2011, 18:53

Tim Davie Tim Davie Director of Audio & Music

Tim Davie

With the completion of a full switchover to digital television now imminent, focus is likely to increase on radio and its progress in the digital world. The story of digital radio in the UK is one of slow, steady progress, and lively debate, rather then breakthrough.

We have reached a point where over a quarter of all listening is via digital but there is a lot to do before the majority of listening moves off analogue, and a switchover would be accepted, and welcomed, by listeners.

As most people are aware, there are significant barriers to change.

Firstly, many listeners remain very content with their current analogue radios and see no real need to change. Indeed, radio listening has held up rather brilliantly in recent years despite the explosion of choice in a digital world.

Secondly, even if people have shown interested in upgrading radios, coverage has remained too patchy to guarantee a robust signal when travelling across the country.

Thirdly, digital radio has lacked unified, knockout communication which has made a compelling case for the benefits of digital radio.

Finally, there has not been broadscale industry, political and industry consensus about the way forward. Indeed, many people still believe that DAB is a technology that is unnecessary because internet enabled devices will make broadcast technology redundant. It is a question that I asked hard on taking this job but it is clear that radio, like television, will need a broadcast "backbone" for many years to come if it is to deliver robust free reception to a morning traffic jam on the M6. There is much comment on the BBC's obsession with DAB but our objectives are simple: ensure cost effective, universal access to our services (including the digital stations) while stimulating competition and innovation which helps grows radio as a whole.

Last week we hosted a meeting of car manufacturers at the BBC and we heard from Ed Vaizey, Minister of Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, as well as other senior industry voices.

Even hardened cynics saw that progress has been made since we started pulling together as an industry to build a digital future.

Specific news included:

  • The government confirmed its commitment to move radio to digital and to plan the move towards a switchover via a Digital Radio Action Plan which is endorsed by the BBC and the major commercial radio companies.
  • We announced that we would build out DAB coverage for our national stations from just over 90% to 97% of the UK population between now and 2015. This will cover all towns with a population of 5000 or more as well as delivering more robust coverage of the 25 large cities and towns. The whole motorway network will have very good coverage, and we are aiming to get close to FM for all primary roads.
  • The car industry indicated that DAB will (or has) become part of the standard spec in all new cars by the end of 2103 at the latest. (So far this year, 18% of new cars have DAB as standard versus 5% last year)
  • Absolute Radio announced two more new digital stations (Absolute 60s and 70s) and the BBC confirmed that as well as supporting current digital stations, it would launch a special temporary digital service to provide increased coverage of the Olympics.
  • Finally the industry confirmed that it would launch a much more unified approach to marketing digital radio.

There is much to do, but radio deserves to benefit from a digital future with increased choice and better functionality.

DAB is part of the story, not all of it, as we must innovate on the internet and ensure that listeners can benefit from the better digital functionality (catch-up, programme information etc).

As for an FM switchover, it will only happen if we make a clear case to listeners on the benefit of change, because evidence shows that when they switch to digital they like it and don't want to go back.

However, my sense is that what seemed unlikely to most people two years ago is now looking possible and may well become inevitable.

Tim Davie is Director of Audio & Music


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    After three progressively more expensive DAB radios I have gone back to analogue radio.My reasons for this are inconsistency of signal affecting quality of reception,the annoyingly long aerials in my kitchen,the inferior quality of a Roberts very expensive radio.
    In addition the fact that digital radios can use up to 3 or 4 times the energy of an analogue radio makes it far less viable.
    Why do no mp3 players feature DAB radio?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    And there is the time delay whilst the signal is processes which is apparent when listening in one room on good old VHF and in another with DAB - so who can trust the time signal's pips on DAB?
    And the sound quality is not so hot either

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    If it weren't for the extra stations - both BBC and other broadcasters - there wouldn't be any point in having a DAB radio.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    DAB is a swing and a miss for me. With several years' head start on Digital TV, it has nowhere near the take-up that allowed analogue switch-off to proceed, and no sign that users will voluntarily start buying in enough quantities to allow compulsion.

    We have to abandon DAB. It will break every device that has already been bought, but we can't continue with a system that just isn't going to get there. A decision has to be taken on what to use instead. DAB+ - which can be employed piecemeal, part of an ensemble at a time - is an obvious step, but we can't simulcast a station in both DAB and DAB+ because there isn't space, without increasing compression on all stations.

    Or, we could go the radical approach and change over to DVB-T2 in 1.7MHz channels, replacing existing DAB allocations, giving much more capacity. Freeview HD boxes are down to an impressive £27 (Tesco are clearing old stock at £15) and that includes an MPEG-4 AVC decoder which the radio obviously wouldn't need. But the Government would have to assign the BBC a new frequency allocation to build-out a new network.

    Or, we could go another way entirely, following the Digital TV model in a different way: providing the replacement in the same frequency band as the service it's replacing. Digital Radio Mondiale plus (DRM+) can operate in VHF Band II along with FM services, as a replacement for an FM service. Single-frequency nets are possible with a transmitter spacing of 75 km. A bit of reshuffling of current BBC FM radio frequencies might make SFNs possible. Another approach might be to relieve commercial radio from some of the frequencies they no longer need, considering they now run pseudo-national services. One of the sticking points for DAB is the need for truly local radio stations to come together into one ensemble, while DRM+ would offer a straightforward one-for-one replacement.

    The radio planners really ought to read Michael Starks' book "Switching to Digital Television: UK Public Policy and the Market", covering how Digital TV switchover was achieved - and of course, how it nearly wasn't.

    ANY of these options is an improvement on sticking with DAB. DAB is just too inefficient.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Oops - somewhat longer than expected ... "standard spec in all new cars by the end of 2103 at the latest".

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The major problem with DAB is that the sound quality is less good than an equivalent priced FM radio. A decent FM receiver simply blows a digital receiver into the weeds - and that's down to the old technology DAB is based on, and the desire to squeeze too many channels into a limited spectrum.

    But factor in the poor mobile/national coverage, problems with updating legacy devices (particularly in cars), and the frankly appalling content on some of these digital stations, and there is no compelling reason to upgrade, especially given the relatively high price of DAB radios.

    At the moment DAB is a solution looking for a problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @ kruador

    Unfortunately it isn't going to be possible to dump DAB just like that - there are 13 million DAB radios out there, some of them cost their owners well over £100 and most of them are not upgradeable to DAB+.

    It would be a huge trading standards issue if all of these radios were rendered useless just after they had been purchased.

    The best we can hope for is DAB+ in about 4 or 5 years' time, providing that Pure are forced to stop disabling the DAB+ software in their UK radios.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Signs of the tipping point. I don't think so Alan. Why is it that BBC executives are so out of touch with reallity. DAB is a legacy system which has been abandonded nearly all european countries. Supporters like Alan have been talinig about a tipping point for years but it never happened. As can be seen from previous comments there is no public support for DAB. It delivers inferior sound quality and is more susceptable to interference than FM. There are at least 150 million FM radios in the UK and there is no way the BBC will be able to switch off the national FM stations in the near future. DAB is more expensive than FM with the same coverage.

    The BBC's huge investment in DAB has been a complete waist of money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Given the millions of cars on the road which even now are not fitted with DAB radio, I can't see that we are anywhere near the point at which a switchover could be contemplated.

    I enquired about getting a DAB upgrade to my 1 year old Mercedes and it was going to cost around £1,000 - I think not! I am sure that most car owners will think the same and I don't see a cheap alternative which would be acceptable.

    Apart from the above everyone I know who has DAB in their car complains about loss of signal and patchy reception.

    There is a very long way to go before a digital switchover could be achieved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    very poor reception, inferior sound quality. cannot think of a reason to switch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Whilst I have nothing against DAB, I don’t understand how the Government and the BBC can consider enforcing a switch-over to it when the usage is so low. It seems to me that discussions about its coverage are irrelevant. If usage in areas already covered (which is after all the majority of the population) was high, say approaching 90%, then there might be an argument for (a) spending a lot more money extending coverage and (b) forcing a switch-over, but in the current circumstances I would suggest that both the cost of extending DAB coverage and/or that of continued running of FM (probably both together) are only be a fraction of the cost to the listening public in replacing their FM receivers. If I am wrong perhaps the BBC would like to confirm their estimate of the total cost expected to be shouldered by their listeners in replacing their equipment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    In answer to shylochume's comment on DAB radio,the i-river B20 is an mp3 player with DAB radio included.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Oh, come on, Tim. Stop spouting the management line. DAB is dead. You have only to read Grant Goddard's blog to see that. To see how many countries in Europe have ABANDONED DAB.

    You talk about "benefit from a digital future with increased choice and better functionality". Fine...anyone who wants 'choice' has got it. They can go and buy a DAB radio. Now. Nothing stopping them. So why force us all to spend money that we don't have for something that we don't want?

    Why won't the BBC and Ed Vaizey come clean and tell us the REAL reason why you are still flogging the DAB dead-horse. The real reason is that the FM transmitters run under contract from Arqiva are reaching the end of their life. When the contract was signed with Arqiva, the BBC rashly thought that DAB would have been adopted by the mainstream public and so no provision was made for new FM transmitters. And now to get out of the hole that they are in, the BBC and the Govt want the rest of us to shell out wasted money just so you only need to worry about the old-fashioned old-technology known as DAB.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I would also like to question the figures regarding car take-up. Take a look at Grant Goddard's blog here for the true figures

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It seems remarkable in the face of all the evidence that the BBC keeping flogging this dead horse. It gives worse, qualitry and less reliable broadcasting than FM!

    Goodness you get better sound on an internet radio.

    I am absolutely tired of the free advertising and spin the BBC funded by the licence fee puts out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @ Londonman

    Grant Goddard's article is from July.

    The facts are not in dispute - one in five NEW cars have DAB as standard. Of course that isn't the same as one in five cars on the road having DAB, but it is significant progress compared with last year, and all new Ford cars will have DAB as standard by the end of 2012.

    The latest RAJAR figures show that digital listening now accounts for 28.2% of all listening (up from 26.9% the previous quarter). DAB accounts for 18% of all listening (up from 15.3%). That is in a quarter when people don't traditionally buy radios in large numbers. There should be an even bigger jump when the Christmas figures are out.

    There is plenty going on in digital radio across Europe:

    It's true that most countries are not using the MP2 version of DAB, preferring to go with DAB+, but it's still based on Eureka 147 and the BBC's transmitters are fully compatible with DAB+ for when the time is right to make the switch to it.

    Switzerland have just announced that they have effectively given up on licensing new FM stations because they believe the future of radio is digital (DAB/DAB+).

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I do not use DAB as I find the reception very poor compared with analogue and download. I am surprised the BBC has opted to use it unless it can be improved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    have you checked that all DAB rcvrs sold are capable of being upgraded to the somewhat improved pan-European standard as well as future enhanced codecs ? or is the UK to be restricted to a second best (and generally poor quality )system. The past history of the BBC re DAB 'quality' must make anyone very dubious that this is anything other than a Mobile Radio industry led ploy to obtain more bandwidth - maybe experience in selling second rate junk drinks might be useful to push a second rate system on licence payers

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I do not pretend to understand the techie stuff regarding DAB but:

    * poor and intermittent coverage
    * poor quality sound reproduction
    * cost of replacing perfectly good FM equipment (in house and car)
    * high energy use (particularly with respect to batteries)

    Don't want it thanks - LEAVE OUR FM ALONE!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    1/ Radio 4 sounds much poorer quality to me on DAB than FM (and the quality of that has been reduced down the years)
    2/ Poor reception renders digital broadcasts unintelligible, unlike analogue signals which simply carry extra noise as the signal deteriorates
    3/ Modern equipment is poor quality and designed to be replaced within a decade. However this does sort out the problem of ditching the BBC’s DAB problem altogether after a few more years
    4/ In the house different digital ‘radios’ have varying delays according to their microchips, making it annoying and unpleasant moving between different rooms
    5/ Digital radios are computers and use many times more power than real radios. I know the transmitters can use less power but compared with tens of millions of radios this is meaningless. Also, digital radios will go wrong sooner than old ones. So much for any regard for the environment
    6/ The BBC will never admit its mistake with DAB, the best option is to allow it to die a quiet death
    7/ Why do digital radios cost more than digital tv receivers, which receive radio as well – all you need to add is a speaker
    8/ BBC, please broadcast R4Xtra on analogue. My wife would be very grateful.


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