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Feedback: The future of digital radio

Friday 9 November 2012, 09:15

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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Roger Bolton

I live in Hertfordshire, in the Chiltern Hills, less than 30 miles from London . This is hardly the back of beyond, and you would not think that hills barely 500ft high would prove an impenetrable barrier to a digital signal, but that seems to be the reality in parts of my village, though not where I am.

I have a digital radio in my car and often drive up to Cumbria, losing the digital signal on parts of my journey.

I also have analogue as well as digital radios at home and I never know which one I should set my watch by since they broadcast the pips at slightly different times.

I listen to the Today programme most days and have lost count of the times one of its digital lines goes down suddenly leaving the presenters (almost) lost for words. You may gather from this that, like many Feedback listeners, I am sceptical about some of the claims made for the quality and range of digital transmissions.

On the other hand I really enjoy 6 Music, so nearly defenestrated from Broadcasting House, and also 4 Extra,(although The Navy Lark and the Clitheroe Kid do not hold up as well as I had hoped) and I think that podcasts and the iPlayer are fabulous.

So I approached this week's Feedback discussion on the future of digital radio with real anticipation.

Here is some background.

  • 20% of all listening is done in cars.
  • Just under a third of all listening is now done via digital and the target of 50% of all listening to be digital by 2013 will not now be met.
  • The Government says it will announce by the end of 2013 whether there will be a so called digital switchover (and analogue switch off) at all.
  • New research at a recent conference about digital receivers in cars suggested that a third of people in the UK did not see the need for DAB radio at all.

That was the background to my discussion with the BBC's outgoing Director of Audio and Music, Tim Davie (he is off to run BBC Worldwide), Steve Humbles, who is Product Marketing Manager, Ford of Britain, and listener Michael Hingston, who can't listen to his DAB radio in Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire.

Here is our discussion

By the way Feedback on Friday afternoons is slightly shorter than the repeat of the programme on Sunday evenings. This is because 4 minutes are edited out to make way for the Listening Project. It is the shorter version that is available on iPlayer.

So if you want more Feedback, do listen on Sunday nights - and do keep telling us what to do.

Your wish is our command.

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

  • Listen to this week's Feedback
  • Listen again to this week's Feedback, get in touch with the programme, find out how to join the listener panel or subscribe to the podcast on the Feedback web page.
  • Read all of Roger's Feedback blog posts.

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    Comment number 1.

    What I don't understand is why DAB in the UK still uses MP2 compression, when the rest of the world switched to the far superior MP3 standard many years ago. And I haven't even heard any talk about a future date when we'll start using MP3 here. Are they planning to stick to the outmoded MP2 standard for ever?

    Also, you talked in the programme about producing a chip in a couple of years or so that will allow radios made anywhere in Europe to be used in any country in Europe - but presumably that means anyone who buys a radio in the meantime is going to have to throw it away soon? If so, surely people are being asked to buy DAB radios now under false pretences - I'm sure hardly anyone would buy one now if they were warned that they'd have to bin it in a couple of years time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I know of no one who has a good word to say about digital radio except those who are trying to shift them of the shelves. Tim Davie is like a salesman selling hard hats which have big holes in them, and who is asking a higher price too. But it's amazing what an appearance on Feedback has done for his career!

    I liked D Love, but there is nothing wrong with FM.

    I enjoyed listening to the programme about Lord Reith - a man of troubled mind. A bad bit of goods. Shouldn't people who believe they have been chosen by God for some great purpose be given tablets rather than a broadcasting empire? He was way off the mark on his views on jazz music, but he was spot on in his objection to the televising of greyhound racing. Has Tim Davie expressed any views on jazz music or greyhound racing?

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    Comment number 3.

    One enormous hurdle to DAB radio ond other digitised forms is the lack of a co ordinated time delay. As such it cannot be used for setting clocks. Worse than this, one cannot have two radios in different rooms on together, as they areout of synch.
    I do.not think switch over can ever happen with any of the current formats.
    This is proved by my move to 7 miles out of our fine city.

    Now I have NO dab radio at all!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    @Dave Rado: MPEG Audio Layer II compression is the standard for DAB. It's basically what DAB *means* - indeed MP2 was developed for DAB originally. Nowhere in Europe uses Layer III (aka MP3), it is not an option. You are perhaps thinking of DAB+, which uses HE-AAC compression (one of the MPEG-4 family of standards). The UK authorities have decided not to use this because of the deployed base of DAB receivers which won't be compatible. The longer they delay this decision, the worse it potentially gets.

    On the other hand, the same authorities are pushing for ever greater release of *TV* spectrum, which is likely to require an early change to the DVB-T2 transmission standard and make every non-HD box obsolete, including many that were only bought this year for switchover. That could potentially happen as early as 2015. What's the difference? Mobile phone networks want the TV spectrum, they don't want the radio spectrum.

    AAC *can* run side-by-side on the same frequency as MP2 compression - the lowest level of encoding is the same for both methods of compression. However, as there is no spare capacity on the BBC's ensemble, nor most of the commercial ones, either some services would have to be changed exclusively to AAC, compression for MP2 services greatly increased, or Ofcom would have to allocate an extra frequency to provide the AAC versions of an ensemble. That means allocating additional spectrum to the BBC and probably taking it away from commercial networks, at least temporarily. Some services will then be lost from digital broadcast radio entirely until original-flavour DAB is turned off.

    In all cases the government want consumers to do most of the switchover themselves, voluntarily. That means there are fewer consumers who will object to the mandatory change, and fewer who have to be subsidised. This technique was used successfully for TV switchover, but there were much more compelling benefits in switching in the first place.

    There is no technological reason why radios can't support DAB+ as well as DAB; HE-AAC requires more processing than MP2, but well within the capabilities of processors produced in the last few years. However, AAC is covered by different patents compared to MP2 and therefore the manufacturer of a dual-standard radio will have to pay more to license those patents than a DAB-only radio. Car radios that play music from USB storage devices or SD cards mostly already licence AAC, to be compatible with iTunes, so a DAB/DAB+ radio should cost the same as a DAB radio.

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    Comment number 5.

    As an aside we are told there are two versions of the programme but the shorter version is the one on iPlayer. That is simply daft - there is by definition no slot length to considered on iPlayer. To provide the best possible service to the listener surely the longer version could be made available there?


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