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Digital radio: Signs of a tipping point?

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Tim Davie Tim Davie | 17:53 PM, Monday, 24 October 2011

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

Comments

  • 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?

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Comment number 5.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Comment number 10.

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

  • 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.

  • Comment number 12.

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

  • 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.

  • 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 http://grantgoddardradioblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/dab-in-cars-straw-that-will-break.html

  • 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.

  • 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:

    http://wohnort.org/dab/

    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+).

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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!!

  • 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.

  • Comment number 21.

    Forgot to mention the real hypocrisy behind all this attempt to phase out high quality FM - this isn't simply change for change's sake, digital requires less 'airspace' so there is lots of money to be made selling off the old bandwidths.

  • Comment number 22.

    Here in the (hilly) Northeast we still have R4 broadcast additonally on MW because in many areas away from the city centres FM is so patchy: so small chance for DAB then!
    if it is the case that money is required to renew FM transmitters (as well as funding other aspects of radio including Internet) then the BBC needs to open a revenue channel so that non license-fee payers can contribute. I don't have a telly but would happily pay £20quid for my analogue radio facility and probably another £10per annum for the net. (Nowt for DAB though [or the centrally run so-called 'local' radio]) I was listening to the World Service and heard that an American woman had emailed to say that she valued it so highly that she would contribute if there was a way and I'm sure there's many more like us.

    NO TO DAB, YES TO GOOD RADIO!

  • Comment number 23.

    About a year ago I bought a DAB radio for my car, it was a small device with an FM transmitter, an add-on to the existing analogue car radio. I wanted to hear local radio when I was outside of my area. I connected it up with the supplied DAB aerial in a prominent position to receive the best possible signal. I drove around for a day checking the signal, I covered a considerable distance around the South East and London, but I got so frustrated at the bad reception I packed it back into it’s box, sent it back and got a refund. I hope the DAB technology will get better or the analogue signal should stay. The current FM band has about six independent stations all broadcasting very similar music, that’s a waste of resources. They all want to be “commercial” the output is the lowest common denominator! It seems to me, the varied output of DAB would be great if the technology worked. It has to be good enough to be used on the move without an aerial on your car roof bigger than the one on the Chinese embassy in Portland Place!!! Rgds - Guy

  • Comment number 24.

    Well, I'm excited about the future of DAB radio and I think the BBC should be applauded for their investment in the medium.

    Tim's absolutely right to mention that DAB offers increased choice. That's why we're bringing communities together with a content quality realignment project by merging local radio stations. Last year we set about increasing choice further by recommending the closure of 6Music and the Asian Network.

    Tim's also right to say that those who try DAB rarely go back to it, well, unless they're going out in their car or they live somewhere outside of the home counties where there's less coverage. But the point he's making is absolutely spot on, if you try it and can afford to upgrade all of your home and car stereo equipment then you'll never go back to FM, unless you're on a train in which case DAB is useless. But it's a good point.

    Of course a quality sound needs quality production, so that’s why so much of our content is overseen by some of Britain’s brightest and enthusiastic interns.

    It’s very important to get the support of people like Ed Vaizey, Minister of Culture, Communications and Creative Industries (note to self, what exactly does that last one mean?). They will see the true value of the BBC’s DAB content when they suddenly realise that the corporation hasn’t been sold off to the private sector.

    So let’s all look forward to the days when we can listen to what’s left of the “World Service” or “BBC Virtually Everywhere North Of Birmingham Local Radio” on DAB equipment in our cars. Imagine the clarity of endless Coldplay or U2 live sessions as we drive the length of the country. DAB is here to stay, unlike some of the stations you can currently enjoy on it.

    Taxi!

  • Comment number 25.

    Andy Parsnip - brilliant! My understanding is that the vacated FM frequencies would not disappear, they'd be used for "ultra local" stations. (Oh joy!) It has been estimated that there are between 50 million and 100 million FM receivers of various kinds which would become useless - expensive paper-weights or landfill? What about WEEE regulations?

    Tim Davie's comment on the proposed switchover that "it will only happen if we make a clear case to listeners on the benefit of change.." sounds just like a politician bemoaning the lack of support because the voters haven't understood the message. The latest RAJAR figures for Q3 show that only 18% of listening was done via DAB. I bet if 6 Music was on FM that figure would be even smaller.

  • Comment number 26.

    Andy Parsnip wrote:
    "Of course a quality sound needs quality production..."

    That is a grossly misleading comment.

    It all depends on what you mean by 'quality'. The only DAB radio station which even approaches the audio quality of FM is Radio 3. All the other channels on DAB have very much poorer audio quality than FM, as is evidenced by the low bit rates that are used in order to cram as many channels as possible into a limited bandwidth.

  • Comment number 27.

    Sorry, Johnb, I'm an area manager for a soft drinks firm so that sort of detail would pass me by.

  • Comment number 28.

    Can someone tell me if DAB radio has the Traffic Announcement capability that FM does? That is surely one of its biggest advantages for cars.

    The reason behind wanting to shift to DAB is probably CONTROL - it must be fairly cheap to set up a totally independent FM station, whereas going via DAB you have to buy time on a central transmitter, which means that there is much closer control over what is broadcast.

  • Comment number 29.

    I listen mainly to Radio 3 which sounds absolutely rubbish on DAB. Even when you get a good signal, it sounds flat and lifeless. DAB is actually pretty superfluous now, I've been listening to internet radio for some time; the choice of music and stations is huge and the sound quality is much better (Radio 3 @ 320kbps, as opposed to DAB's 192kbps). I've just bought a Denon network streamer, to replace my old Denon DAB/FM tuner. It includes an FM tuner so I can still listen to R3 in my preferred format, and I can listen again to programmes I miss via internet radio. Interestingly Denon, who have made the best budget hifi tuners for years have now dumped DAB which doesn't feature on their current tuner or network player.

  • Comment number 30.

    Andy Parsnip, are you a wind-up/stooge or do you really believe what you have to say?

    DAB is dead in the water - without the huge public subsidies accrued by the Beeb it would already have sunk without a trace. This is one of the worst aspects of dependent broadcast networks, give them sufficient and as well as some awesome programmes there is the appalling waste of money such as this. They're so big they can make it appear to succeed where no-one else could - shame the mistake made with our money can't be acknowledged and a better format organised. Unfashionable in today's fast-changing world to stick with what there already is (and when the alternative can help earn some mega-bucks) but preferably FM, MW and LW should be continued as it uses less power to receive, less energy to make the equipment and is a better sound.

    R4Xtra needs to go analogue.

  • Comment number 31.

    Radio 4 Extra won't be going analogue, there are no available frequencies for it.

    It's also one of the main reasons for people to buy DAB sets, along with 6 Music, Jazz FM and Absolute 80s.

  • Comment number 32.

    Well I love my in-car DAB; some signal problems when I installed it a few years ago, but it's fine now. I listen mainly to channels which are either DAB only or are only also in AM - 6music, 5live, 5 live sports extra, Jazz FM, Talksport, 4extra - and have no problems with listening tothe 2 FM staions (Radios 4 and, increasing less frequently, 2) on DAB

  • Comment number 33.

    Let’s face it DAB does not have CD quality sound, reception is an issue, power consumption of DAB equipment is far higher than analogue radio. Plus if all the 150 million FM radios in the UK were to be replaced by their owners (the general public) at say £30 each, yes if only DABs were that cheap, it would cost £4.5bn. Once we have all been forced to go DAB the FM frequencies will be auctioned and the revenue used to come up with another scheme that will cost the public even more. Cancelling DAB now would still save the public billions. I would happily through my DAB OUT!

  • Comment number 34.

    The Daily Service ( 9.45 to 10 AM NON TO FRI has been removed from FM and is only available on Long wave ( which is becoming rare on radios ) and appears on digital for 15 mins then disappears. It doesn't seem possible to get a live broadcast on the web. Is is possible to have a ghost indicator in the address list so that when digital radios are scanning the available programmes it is recognised ? It may be possible to include a text note explaining the temporary nature of the broadcast.
    PS the daily service doesn't appear on the home page as 'ON Now' when it is being broadcast - it's rival 'book of the week' appears only.

  • Comment number 35.

    Hello all

    I spoke to the DAB team here and have put together some answers:

    #2
    Time signals on DAB
    The time delay mentioned is a feature of all digital broadcasting - not just digital radio. It is caused by the time required to encode and decode the digital signal at either end of the transmission system. Whilst we can control the delay in the transmission, there is also a decoding delay in the receiver which is under the control of the manufacturers. Any delay we could add to the FM transmission chain could only be aimed at a few DAB receivers as not all receivers perform consistently.


    #28
    Can someone tell me if DAB radio has the Traffic Announcement capability that FM does? That is surely one of its biggest advantages for cars.

    Traffic Announcements are not available via DAB at the moment. Ideally, the BBC would like to replicate any service on FM onto DAB but we also need to ensure that the delivery of any service is as good as or better than that via FM. Traffic Announcements are only available via RDS/FM and they work by interrupting your listening (on CD as well as radio) whilst driving, providing the driver with the latest traffic bulletin and then returns to the original service. Research carried out has shown that some drivers find this an important feature whilst others find it an irritation. We are therefore planning to run a test with Arqiva (transmitter operator) to see if and how we may be able to replicate the service onto DAB whilst maintaining a good experience for the driver.


    #34
    The Daily Service (9.45 to 10 AM MON TO FRI has been removed from FM and is only available on Long wave (which is becoming rare on radios) and appears on digital for 15 mins then disappears. It doesn't seem possible to get a live broadcast on the web. Is is possible to have a ghost indicator in the address list so that when digital radios are scanning the available programmes it is recognised? It may be possible to include a text note explaining the temporary nature of the broadcast.
    PS the daily service doesn't appear on the home page as 'ON Now' when it is being broadcast - it's rival 'book of the week' appears only.


    The Daily Service is, as you rightly say, available on your digital radio - however, because Radio 4 Long Wave on digital radio is a part-time service it does not appear in the station list until it is on-air. It is on air from 8am during weekdays (starting with Parliament). However, you can pre-set the station (depress a pre-set button when the service is on air anytime from 8am) and the service will be stored automatically on your radio so you don't have to hunt for it every time.

    There's more info at bbc.co.uk/digitalradio

    Thanks,
    Paul

  • Comment number 36.

    Why is the sound quality so poor?

    And why does my DAB radio insist on tuning to the Yorkshire transmitter when I live in South Nottinghamshire?

    When these problems are sorted I may consider ditching FM but not until then.

  • Comment number 37.

    It doesn't seem possible to get a live broadcast on the web. Is is possible to have a ghost indicator in the address list so that when digital radios are scanning the available programmes it is recognised. But with some private services we can manage to tweak this and broadcast. Take a look at this web radio which has an interesting built up framework: [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 38.

    There is another issue, concerning in-car DAB radios, which the BBC in particular has chosen to ignore. One of the features of the DAB radio that is factory fitted in my car is its ability to automatically switch to the equivalent FM broadcast in the event of the loss of the DAB signal.

    The benefits of this feature in a moving vehicle, with the current coverage of DAB are obvious, but sadly, this feature rarely works, particularly on BBC stations.

    I am given to understand that it does not work simply because the RDS "PI" Code for FM, and the "SID" for DAB as put out by the BBC, are different. Ofcom publish a spreadsheet of all the relevant codes at http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/broadcast/guidance/tech-guidance/tech-parameters/TxParams.xls

    For example for Radio 4 the FM RDS PI code is C204, on DAB the SID code is C224. (However compare this with Classic FM - it is C2A1 on both systems, and therefore the radio automatically changes to FM on loss of DAB signal).

    Why does the BBC ignore this facility, which at least is a convenience, and at best removes yet another eye-diverting task from a driver, and could therefore prevent an accident?

 

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