What's the future of DAB radio in the UK?

What's the future of DAB radio in the UK?

Summary: Important people are now talking in back rooms about the future of DAB digital radio in the UK, and I'd love to know how the discussions are going. We're at a critical juncture, because it doesn't look as though DAB will meet the criteria for a switchover from FM in 2015, if ever.

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Important people are now talking in back rooms about the future of DAB digital radio in the UK, and I'd love to know how the discussions are going. We're at a critical juncture, because it doesn't look as though DAB will meet the criteria for a switchover from FM in 2015, if ever. In fact, the wheels appear to be coming off the DAB bandwagon. Some radio stations refused to carry the Digital Radio UK advertising campaign that was meant to be the big push this Christmas, with The Guardian reporting that "it is not currently being carried by Heart, Capital and Classic FM parent Global Radio, Kiss and Magic owner Bauer Media, Smooth Radio parent GMG Radio or UKRD, which together make up the vast majority of commercial radio stations." The story says:

William Rogers, the UKRD chief executive, said it was "fundamentally immoral and dishonest" to run the campaign "knowing the DAB infrastructure is not good enough and knowing full well that when people buy a DAB radio it may not work when they get it home".

The problem is that a vast amount of money has been spent on DAB since the BBC started broadcasting digital radio in 1995, but to very little effect. Closing DAB down, or moving to DAB+, would involve a considerable loss of face, and it would make roughly 10m DAB radios in the UK obsolete. However, it would be even more expensive to step up investment to complete the DAB rollout, and the threat to an estimated 150m or so FM radios could lead to a consumer backlash.

Can the radio industry find a way out? What do you think is likely to happen?

The problems that must be solved in the UK are as follows:

First, the number of FM radios is still growing rapidly in the UK because they are included in many mobile phones, MP3 players, microsystem hi-fi's, cars, and almost all DAB radios. The number of DAB radios is therefore shrinking as a proportion of the total installed base. Also, the existing installed base includes many DAB radios that cannot be upgraded to DAB+ or the WorldDMB receiver standard suggested in the Digital Britain report.

Second, DAB's network coverage does not match FM's, and it will be expensive (£100m to £200m, or whatever) to build it out. Nobody wants to pay for this -- not commercial radio, not the BBC, and definitely not UK government. FM will not be turned off so there is no prospect of funding the build-out by selling off the FM spectrum.

Third, the world has changed in the 15-20 years since DAB was designed. We are clearly entering a world of multi-format radio with Internet, cable and satellite delivery of thousands of stations, many of them offering more choice of content and better sound quality than DAB. This includes "stations" such as Last.fm and Spotify.

Fourth, DAB is having a terrible financial impact on the British radio industry, because it is increasing the cost of broadcasting (most stations have to pay for both FM and DAB) without delivering a significant new audience or significant new revenues.

Fifth and last, no British government will have the guts to turn off FM in the sense of moving BBC Radios 1, 2 and 4 to DAB only, even if DAB radio listening reaches 50%. There was an outcry against removing cricket from Long Wave, and an outcry against removing 6Music from DAB. Both of these had very few listeners. The attempt to turn off major FM stations with millions of listeners would most likely lead to a far bigger revolt. The reply that you can just buy a new DAB kitchen radio, a new DAB radio alarm clock, and a new DAB car radio is not going to be met with politeness.

Topic: Tech Industry

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • It's simply scandalous that DAB radios have been pedalled to the public for years, on the pretext that they sound better. They don't. They use a less efficient format for compression than MP3.

    We shouldn't confuse a triumph for British technology 20 years ago with something that's even remotely relevant today, as the entire broadcasting industry moves inexorably towards IP delivery, and from "Push" to "Pull". They'd have been better off spending the money on improving our IP infrastructure, so that we could listen to streaming audio in our cars.

    And it's not as if this is a new revelation (although kudos to Jack for bringing it up again). The same arguments have been going unheard for nearly a decade. What does appear to be new is that important people are speaking up about it.

    DAB: another victim of exponential technology change.
  • Can be summarised as 'seemed like a good idea at the time'.
  • I got a new car a couple of months ago. The bad news is that it came with DAB. The good news is that it also came with FM.

    The DAB rubbish wasn't even able to cope with a trip along the A25 - yes, that's A not M - the FM section had no trouble at all.

    The same as with digital TV, if there's a problem you get nothing at all. With analogue systems there is a graceful fall back and plenty of warning before the signal becomes unreadable. This is something that the majority of people appreciate at an almost subconscious level.
  • How sad! I bought a Revo DAB + internet radio recently, and I love it. It doesn't travel around, which I suppose means it gets a steadier signal. I would be bummed if DAB went away -- my ISP wouldn't be too pleased with me streaming internet radio as much as I listen to DAB.
    Shannon Doubleday
  • I'd much rather have a reliable mobile data connection than broadcast radio when I'm out and about. Music and podcasts I can bring with me (specific to my interests, no need to waste bandwidth on them), but I really need a wireless connection for news and traffic information, and for letting people know where I am. As "bigdaveonline" says above, the world is moving from "push" to "pull". Outside major cities it's scandalously difficult to get a mobile data connection.
  • Excellent article and comments. My DAB radio doesn't work downstairs, hence a new FM radio purchase. Seems like the government is now caught between a rock and a hard place, having to maintain both FM and DAB. Imagine the furore if the plug was pulled on DAB.

    And spot on from philmck "I'd much rather have a reliable mobile data connection than broadcast radio" -- much more demand for this infrastructure than for DAB radio.
    Jake Rayson
  • DAB is waiting for a cell network identical to the mobile phone one, Digital suffers a high signal degradation due to background scatter and interference, with signal bounce from buildings - the very areas it needs to service have the biggest problems.

    FM has error correction and the signal was able to bounce from surfaces and travel through light building materials which now degrade a digital signal. FM benefits from the signal being able to degrade but still be recoverable.

    Digital also has error correction - no make that data replacement when it discovers a damaged data packet but unlike a protocol, communication is one way and what is lost is lost for good. Also when this signal degrades it effectively scrambles any data. This is due to the fact that DAB is composed of many FM signals interposed in steps of 1/4 to make many sine waves (analogue) into a square wave (digital). The problem being, these waves are all different wavelengths and split apart with distance travelled and when they meet interference. DAB therefore needed to be line of sight, from transmitter to receiver and has problems using the existing FM transmitters because they are sited for FM signals and not digital.

    In short the DAB needs to have many local transmitters rather than the one regional FM to give the same quality of service. I was with a PHD student in Reading University whose thesis was on this very problem in 1999.
  • @L1ma

    "FM has error correction and the signal was able to bounce from surfaces and travel through light building materials which now degrade a digital signal."

    FM has no error correction. Error correction requires redundant information to detect errors and either more redundant information or a return path to correct errors. FM has neither.

    Bouncing off surfaces causes multipath interference. Have you heard the effect of this on an FM signal ??

    The rest of your comment is wrong on so many levels, too.

  • The future of digital radio transmission will almost certainly be Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) and this is what the "important people behind closed doors" are talking about.
    DRM will eventually be the new universal world standard platform in radio transmission.

    What are the benefits of DRM?

    DRM is greener, clearer, wider, bigger, better quality & audio content and cost efficient

    DRM provides digital sound quality and the ease-of-use that comes from digital radio, combined with a wealth of enhanced features: Surround Sound, Journaline text information, Slideshow, EPG, and data services.

    Welcome to DRM ....... The future universal world standard in digital broadcasting.

    Check it out right now at WWW.drm.org
    Wikipedia also has a very interesting and very educational information page about DRM.
  • Isn't the whole point of digital radio to allow the powers that be to flog licences to more radio stations that the FM bandwidth can handle? Sound quality has nothing to do with it. Just means we'll have to tab through dozens of channels of garbage to get to what we want, which in most cases will probably be BBC radios 1 to 4. Bit like freeview...
  • There are a lot of inaccuracies in both the article and in some of the comments. Digital radio is less expensive and offers much more choice to users than analogue radio. I'll refer to some blogposts than deal with a lot of this.

    2034 Transmitters in Norway are 1484 Too Many.

    21 Reasons Why FM is Almost History.

    Broadcasting is More Than Radio and TV.

    Why MNOs Should Love Broadcasting
  • @gunngx
    > There are a lot of inaccuracies in ... the article

    No, there are not.

    Otherwise, I can easily see some common ground between the points I make and the ones on the site that you point to. For example, this comment by Gunnar Garfors...

    He says:
    > 1) It is not cost effective to transmit DAB while at the same time transmitting
    > FM. But to get rid of double distribution (and only go for the by far cheapest
    > technology) would be very cost effective.

    I made the point that the UK is currently stuck with double-distribution costs....

    > 3) It is difficult to market a service that doesn't reach everyone, and broadcasters
    > cannot afford to reach everyone until they know when FM can be shut off.

    As I also pointed out, DAB does not reach as far as FM and nobody really wants to pay the huge (£100m-£200m or whatever) cost of the DAB build-out.

    Of couse, I'm sure there are many areas where we'd differ. He is patently a DMB-booster -- and "President of International DMB Advancement Group" (IDAG) -- whereas I have the freedom for independent thought.
    Jack Schofield
  • Excellent article. My DAB radio doesn't work downstairs either! Better upstairs but many stations "warble", and we are supposed to be in a good reception area. I have heard of sets being returned to retailers as they "don't work". There are so many problems with DAB, very few points in its favour. So often we read of DAB problems, why waste the money!
  • I listen to FM broadcasts which include classic FM, radio 2 and Smooth FM using a Revox B285. The sound quality is stunning. Why would I need or consider replacing it with a DAB solution?
  • Dab radio is of no practical use. I have had two dab radios, one was a hi-fi tuner , Sorry folks but Dab sounds terrrible, harsh rough audio and the stereo image is dead, listening for more than a couple of minutes is fatuiging FM is not technically perfect but we love it. I was lucky and was able to sell the "Hi-FI" dab tuner. My second dab receiver is a battery powered personal radio with headphones. Wow a great portable, I can lilsten to DAb as I am moving around ...... nope, the batteries last two hours if you are lucky and the signal drops out all the time ( and I am in a very strong sigmnal area) this dab radio now lies ijn a drawer unused. Both receivers were expensive. Our local supermarket was selling off some FM/AM personal radios for under £5, battery life is fantastic, and the signal is always there. I listen to this radio all the time . As has been said before DAB is obsolete but no one wants to admit it.