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Analogue switch off 'ain't going to happen'

The plan was simple: switch off the FM and AM antennas in the wake of the exodus to digital, but some powerful voices in the radio industry are switched off to the idea.

Being first is generally seen as a good thing. The UK was the first country to industrialise and to complete a national rail network. British Marconi was the first company to develop commercial radio. But simply getting to the goal ahead of everyone else isn't enough; you have to identify new goals and achieve them too – you have to innovate.

It's not easy. Once you have built your infrastructure, you still have to pay the bank for the outlay required. Thus you will have cemented vested interests in your status quo, but the competition is not interested in following your business plan. Your competitors will forge ahead with technology on a different product lifecycle and you may be forced to play catch-up sooner than you think.

Digital audio broadcasting (DAB) is a prime example of this. The UK was the first to develop a digital alternative to the analogue FM and AM signals in the late 1980s, when many music fans were compelled to re-buy albums and junk their vinyl counterparts. Could there be an alternative to crackly radio signals, just as ethereal optical storage had usurped scratchy 33s and 45s? Most likely as the development of digital radio was tied up to the same technology that had made CDs and laser discs possible.

DAB radio technology had been under development since 1981, but in 1993 the UK was the first to step up to the plate with public demonstrations. Commercial DAB receivers were on sale by 1999. By 2001, over 50 radio stations were available in London alone..

The rest of the world bided its time for a few more years, by which time the technology had moved on. A new standard, DAB+, was approved with far more efficient digital compression technologies meaning that either more stations could run on a single multiplex or a higher fidelity signal could be broadcast.

'DAB is based on an MPEG layer 2 derivative whereas DAB+ uses a far more efficient codec,' explains Jonny McClintock, director of APTX sales at CSR.

No support for DAB

Critics of the UK's DAB standard claim the signal is often of lower quality than FM signals. So, for example, where BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 were originally being broadcast at 192kbps, since 2002 a rapid increase in BBC channels has meant that these national stations are now broadcast at 128kbps. Talk stations such as 5Live can be as low as 64kbps, so the roar from a stadium is reduced to sardines squealing in a tin.

Responses to Ofcom's recent consultation on DAB transmission reiterate this criticism, prompting significant numbers of operators to publicly declare that DAB is not an appropriate platform for local commercial radio delivery.

The consultation confirms the need for a costly build-out of hundreds of transmitters to deliver equivalent service coverage. Chief executive of UK Radio Development (UKRD) Group William Rogers claims that the consultation demonstrates that DAB is a hopelessly inappropriate platform for the existing FM local services to migrate to and urges a rethink of the current DAB planning process.

The response received by Ofcom, urging the abandonment of DAB as the future local radio platform, has been signed by radio groups from England, Wales and Scotland. A total of 52 stations are showing their resistance to DAB, including Tindle Radio Group, Town and Country Broadcasting, Brighton and Hove Radio and Celador, as well as UKRD, the country's fourth largest operator of commercial licences.

'DAB is clearly a nonsense for genuinely local commercial radio services. The growing realisation among operators that this is a car crash waiting to happen has now bubbled to the surface and needs to be taken seriously,' says Rogers.

'There are many in the industry who are clear about what needs to be done. I hope that the government won't be too long before realising the errors that are being made and allow local radio operations to be left to continue to broadcast on the excellent, and far more appropriate, FM platform.

'We don't need, want or support this change. Things are tough enough as it is without the government heaping more costs, uncertainty and damage on the sector. DAB for local commercial radio is inappropriate. It ain't gonna happen.'

BBC funding

In October, the BBC confirmed that it will pay for the rollout of DAB radio to 97 per cent of the population. Tim Davie, the corporation's director of audio and music, says the BBC would be funding the expansion of its national DAB platform – which currently stands at just over 90 per cent coverage – 'despite the tough financial environment'.

Every town with a population of more than 5,000 would have indoor DAB coverage, but Davie admits that 'small pockets of poor coverage in some of these areas' would remain. For him, the priority is 'solid coverage' in the UK's top 25 cities, with boosts to the signal in areas including London, Leicester, Glasgow, Coventry and Swansea.

However, even Davie appreciates that there is now a further dilution of the original aim of switching off analogue transmitters. In a speech at the Drive to Digital conference at the BBC's Broadcasting House, he referred to 'radio's digital hybrid future' which supports this dilution.

A digital future

Last year, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey more or less abandoned the 2015 switchover target suggested by the Carter Report and now refers to it merely as an 'objective'.

The government is planning to launch a digital radio certification mark towards the end of 2012, with a final decision on timing to be made in the first half of the year. 'There is undoubtedly a huge amount of work to be done between now and mid-2013, with even more to follow if the switchover is to become a reality,' says Vaizey, 'but right now the only future I envisage for radio is digital.'

One major argument is about the limits of DAB when compared to the newer standard. 'DAB+ is a far better option for local radio,' says Rogers. However, the industry still does not have a migration path from DAB to DAB+.

When the first DAB receivers went on sale in the UK, they were not future proofed. Since 2007 an increasing number of receivers have become firmware upgradable, including those from market leader Pure. But this is a highly complex procedure.

For migration to work, all the radio transmitters in the UK would have to agree to start transmitting on DAB+ en masse.

'Theoretically, this is possible,' says Bruce Randall, a spokesperson for Arqiva, the company that runs the transmission infrastructure for most radio stations in the UK.

'But many small community radio stations do not want the cost of simulcasting on a variety of standards,' admits Randall.

Although the BBC will be paying for the build out of their transmitters so that the UK reaches 97 per cent, this will not include commercial transmitters. Arqiva owns the Digital One UK commercial multiplex, which currently has 90 per cent coverage, but it has not announced any plans to match the BBC's ambitions.

Transportable DAB

Another issue is the small number of DAB transmitters fitted as standard in new cars.

The UK's new car market has seen a 184 per cent increase in the standard fitting of digital radio in the first three-quarters of 2011 compared to the same period in 2010, which would suggest that the drive to digital is well under way.

'Significant progress has been made in developing the content and coverage of digital radio, driving consumer demand in the new car market. The massive increase we've seen this year puts us well on the way towards delivering our commitment to fit all new cars with digital radio by the end of 2013,' said Paul Everitt, SMMT chief executive.

'In the last 12 months, at least 14 car brands have announced plans to fit digital radio as standard, but we must also ensure that plans are in place to support the 25 million cars on the road that will need safe, reliable upgrades undertaken by accredited technicians.'

But look more carefully at the statistics. In the third quarter of 2011, approximately 93,000 new cars were fitted with DAB as standard, but this represents less than 18 percent of all new cars produced for that quarter.

It is still a steep hill to climb to reach the UK government's target of 50 per cent of new cars to have DAB as standard by 2013. Expect those crackly signals to continue broadcasting well into the next decade. *

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