Public will decide pace of digital radio change says minister

The government said yesterday it was dropping a 2015 target date for switching radio transmission to digital from analogue, saying the timing must be decided by the pace of public demand.

Communications Minister Ed Vaizey said listeners needed to be persuaded of the case for abandoning their old radios and buying new DAB digital ones.

A decision on the date for the switchover would not be taken until half of radio listening in Britain was digital, he said. DAB radios currently account for 15 percent of listening now.

“We can’t impose this on an unwilling public, no matter how persuasive the business case, or how clearly we know that analogue is already providing a barrier to growth and creativity,” Vaizey said in extracts of a speech released in advance.

“Listeners need to be persuaded that the content on offer is compelling, that the quality is high and that digital radios, at home or in the car, are affordable and have listening quality that is at least as good as FM.” Vaizey will publish a “digital action plan” to encourage more people to switch and to give manufacturers the confidence to keep investing.

He said the plan “sets out our clear commitment to make progress towards digital radio switchover. But I am not setting a date.”

He said industry believed 2015 was an achievable target date and the government would work to support that, provided there was sufficient public demand.

“When the weight of public opinion is behind it, with more than half of all radio-listening digital, then we can take the decision on when the country will be ready for switchover,” he said.

The ousted Labour government had scheduled 2015 for switching national and regional radio stations to digital. But take up of digital has been slower than anticipated, with the majority of listeners apparently happy with the service received over their analogue radios. A House of Lords committee warned in March there would be a “major public reaction” against a 2015 switchover unless the government improved its case for the change. Switching off the analogue signal would make between 50 million and 100 million radios in Britain redundant.

There are also 20 million cars which would need converters to receive digital, while digital radios will not be fitted as standard in vehicles till 2013. Critics of digital radio say the signal strength can be patchy in parts of the country and argue that sound quality has been compromised by the number of channels.

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