As Norway prepares to shut down FM radio in 2017, will the UK follow suit?
This year was supposed to be the year the UK’s national radio stations shut their doors to FM for good in favour of Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), but with no firm date in mind, could the idea be scrapped altogether? Norway has announced the end of analogue radio, and plans to be the first country to turn off one of five FM transmitters on 11 January 2017; this will save £35m as FM costs eight times more to run than DAB. Although a number of countries are in the analogue-to-digital transition period, Norway will be the first to fully scrap traditional terrestrial radio and turn to DAB, providing 22 national channels, and potentially a further 20 more.
Despite a successful switchover for terrestrial television in 2012, it is highly unlikely that radio stations will follow suit as the UK government has proposed a new deadline of 2020 or abandoning the idea altogether. Ed Vaizey, the UK minister of state for culture and the digital economy, has acknowledged that the public’s acceptance of DAB radios has been limited, with a lack of investment in DAB technologies in the UK.
The proposed switchover only applies to national radio stations, leaving local and community stations reliant on FM. The idea around digital means listeners can tune in to radio stations via DAB radios, the Internet, as well as through digital televisions and smartphones, to hear a diverse range of radio stations.
The government’s criteria mean that the switchover cannot take place until the majority of the population are listening through digital means. Speaking back in 2013, Vaizey had already admitted defeat: “In terms of timetable and dates. I have always been clear this will be led by radio listening. There will be no switchover until the majority of listening is digital. It is clear we are not there yet; we need to make more progress.”
With that said, the UK is not in a bad position, as figures released by research firm Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) and Digital Radio UK, a leader in DAB radio, reveal 40 per cent of radio listening is now digital, via digitally-enabled receivers, which include DAB, television or online.
Radio broadcasters such as the BBC and Bauer Media are playing major roles in the transition; already the BBC’s digital station BBC Radio 6 Music has recorded over two million listeners while its Radio 4 Extra attracted 2.17 million listeners.
Furthermore, Absolute 80s, owned by Bauer Media, attracts an average of 1.45 million listeners a week and Planet Rock draws in 1.25 million a week. These figures provide hope that the UK will, one day, experience a digital switchover but as the government has revealed, the DAB take-up has been slower than anticipated.
“The key reason for this delay is the lack of adoption of digital radios and a very large installed base of analogue radios,” explains Paul Beastall of Cambridge Consultants. “The average household had a limited number of television sets and the move to digital coincided with the wide-scale adoption of flat screen technology. There is not the same driver for the upgrade of radios.”
Despite a setback, the benefits for digital radios are there. “We are now at a stage where portable DAB radios are at a sensible price, have a reasonable battery life, and the user interface is invariably a lot nicer than the old tuning knob,” adds Beastall.
Many countries are interested in the switchover and while Norway takes the lead, it would appear the UK is not alone in its delay. According to global industry forum of digital radio, WorldDMB, Switzerland already has 99 per cent digital coverage and is expected to switch off its FM transmissions between 2020 and 2024 and Denmark by 2019. Trials in Asia, Hong Kong and Vietnam took place in 2011 and 2013. Thailand, South Korea and parts of the Middle East are at planning stages of trialling DAB.
Getting listeners to tune in via the Internet is a popular idea given the prevalence of smartphones and connected devices in our lives, but that is not as simple as it seems, as demonstrated in Australia. It launched digital radio in 2009, and now five state capitals have digital coverage with a quarter of listeners now tuning in digitally; however the benefits are not reaching regional listeners. Alternative listening, such as Internet streaming isn’t as practical as is sounds, explains Steve Ahern, industry veteran at radioinfo.com.au.
“There are three million people in Melbourne, for example, and a radio station like Fox FM has a peak audience of around 800,000 listeners in the morning. If those 800,000 people tried to listen to Fox simultaneously on their home or mobile broadband connections, it would choke the Internet for the whole of Melbourne.”
He adds: “Radio transmissions are much more efficient and cost effective when you’re trying to reach so many people at once, especially when you look to regional areas where bandwidth can still be scarce.”
While Internet radio offers more variety, taking up too much bandwidth could possibly mean a city’s Internet would crash. But this type of streaming is not yet off the table, as this year Apple announced the launch of Apple Music’s 24-hour Internet radio station, Beats 1. It will be run by three renowned DJs from three different cities across the world; former Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe broadcasting from Los Angeles, Ebro Darden from New York and Julie Adenuga from London.
How does it sound?
As the way we listen to music continues to change, questions around sound quality often arise. In hindsight, as the FM spectrum becomes more crowded, digital listening provides space for extra channels. Surprisingly, many digital radios stations in the UK are broadcasting at 64kbit/s mono using the MP2 codec, this means its quality is much lower compared to the MP3 codec. As more national radio stations unveil sister stations, it would appear the quality of sound has dramatically reduced, with the exception of BBC Radio 3, which is 160kbit/s to 190kbit/s using the MP2 codec.
“One of the key differences between AM and FM is how they perform where received signals are weak. The trouble is that a poor FM signal gives a gradual loss in quality – first the stereo stops, then there is a bit more noise behind the programme, and only then does it give up,” explains Cambridge Consultants Beastall. “DAB, by contrast, starts to make whooshing and whirring noises very quickly, and these are far more noticeable. This means for the same perceived signal quality, DAB coverage actually has to be better than the legacy FM.”
The digital switchover is not limited to just the household; cars will also play a big part in the shake-up as six out of ten new vehicles are equipped with digital radio. Digital Radio UK announced in June that there are now five million cars in the UK equipped with digital radio, plus 64.9 per cent of new car registrations during March 2015 were fitted with a DAB as a standard. While the likes of Volkswagen, BMW, Land Rover and Hyundai are beginning to fit DAB into new cars, the problem is most people still have cars without digital receivers.
“The real challenge is always going to be the legacy of millions of cars, vans and lorries which need conversion,” says Jonathan Merricks, CEO at View Quest. “The question we need to be asking is, are the current market solutions meeting this requirement? The answer has to be a resounding ‘no’; current solutions are too complex, too expensive or require professional installation.”
While it is possible to listen to the radio in the car via an Internet-enabled smartphone, the solution is not secure enough as 3G and 4G connectivity is still hit-and-miss. To add to the analogue-to-digital transmission, automotive specialists such as Halfords can fit a digital radio adapter. This picks up the DAB signal and then re-transmits it as FM in a quiet spot in the band for the car radio to pick up; but radio car conversion is still limited due to cost and size.
“This provides a complicated and confusing user experience with two sets of controls. A separate display missing out on all the ergonomics of the car, for instance well-positioned display and typically no integration with steering column controls,” explains Beastall.
He adds: “Cars typically have a longer life than consumer electronics, which means that it will be a long time before older cars without DAB are no longer in the market. This is likely to mean that there will be a need to maintain at least some FM services for at least the next 10 years.”
Another issue is coverage as even though the BBC DAB service covers 94 per cent of the populations and commercial DAB is 85 per cent, the coverage isn’t on the same level as FM. “Unfortunately we don’t constrain our driving to centres of population, so there is work to do, to give a satisfactory DAB experience on most journeys. The government promises that this will be addressed by providing more transmitters to fill the coverage gaps,” says Beastall.
It is clear digital listening is the future and the UK must now prepare better for a possible 2020 switchover. “The underlying message is the days of FM are most certainly numbered; once a consumer tries digital radio, they quite simply will never go back, just like they now wouldn’t consider going back to analogue TV,” says View Quest’s Merricks.