Ed Vaizey gave a speech on Monday at the GO Digital Conference on the current state of the government’s Digital Radio Action Plan (DRAP). This was the plan to coalition government put in place when they came to power in 2010 to set the criteria for when the UK would have digital radio switchover (in the same way it had done with television). In short the goal for Radio switchover is to reach the point where all national and large local stations currently broadcasting on both DAB (digital audio broadcasting) and analogue frequencies will cease to broadcast on analogue. Small local and community stations will then be able to use the vacated FM spectrum. Or at least, that was the plan. The new coalition Government rolled into town committed to the last Government’s target date of 2015 to move from FM to digital audio broadcasting (DAB). But is stated that this would only happen when 50% of listening is on digital ( it was then 24%); when national and local DAB coverage is comparable to FM and reaches 90% of the population; and when DAB is receivable on all major UK roads.
A report by the Consumer Expert Group from 2010 suggested the target date for a digital switchover should only announced when no more than 30 % of listeners remained on analogue; the take-up criterion should compare like-for-like listening platforms and measure DAB listening only; and the coverage criterion should be measured by signal strength, not just population, so that indoor and mobile reception are considered. The government did not agree.
So, how are we doing?
According to Viazey we in the UK have achieved a huge amount because “there has been a massive increase in coverage.”
The BBC’s national DAB network now reaches 94% of homes, up from 85% in 2010. [ Is 9% in 3 years ‘massive’? Maybe , but the BBC set themselves a target of 92% by the end of 2011 ] so by the end of 2013 they are only 2% ahead of that ]
Better still, digital’s share of listening is now at 35.6%, up from 21.1% in 2009. Not sure where he got this figure from as Ofcom’s latest Digital Radio Report (Sept) shows that in the 12 months to the end of June 2013, over a third (33.9%) of all radio listening hours was to digital radio, across various platforms such as DAB, digital TV and the internet or ‘apps’. This according to Ofcom was an 11.2 % increase on the same period in 2010 and a 4.4 % increase year on year. So, there has been growth in listening share, and to be honest I’d have been shocked had there not been growth.
However, Ofcom’s report (and Vaisey’s bluster) shows just what you can do to spin figures: Ofcom points out that of the 33.9% of listening hours that were accounted for by digital platforms in the 12 months to Q2 2013, DAB sets contributed 22% to the total. And then says, this means that 64.9% of digital listening was through a DAB radio.
OR despite everything 35.1% of all digital listening is still NOT through a DAB radio.
I’m I just being negative? I’m I raining on DAB’s parade? Not exactly. But what you don’t see in these headline figures is what happens if we look back at previous reports.
Take this from 2012 ” Listening on a DAB digital radio set was the most widely-used method of listening to digital radio in the 12 months to the end of Q2 2012, accounting for 64.9% of all digital listening hours.”
What about 2011’s report? ” Of the 26.5% of all listener hours that were delivered via a digital platform, listening to DAB digital radios contributed 16.7 percentage points (63%) of the total”.
What about the first report in 2010? This was at a time where Ford Ennals, chief executive of Digital Radio UK, was telling anybody who would listen that: “There is now real momentum in the transition to digital radio…” Switchover, he said is a “matter of when, not if”
Ofcom’s report said: ” DAB digital radio was the most widely-used means of listening to digital radio services, accounting for almost two-thirds (63%) of all digital listener hours”
Basically the picture in 2010 is the same as the one in 2013. DAB radio listening accounts for two thirds of digital listening. This is a STATIC figure.
And yet, Ford was in full deluded throws of excitement “We have set a course to double listening and expand coverage by 2013, and to switchover by the end of 2015” he screamed from the rooftops
According to Rajar then –
The headlines for all radio listening via platforms in Q3 2010 were:
• Analogue radio’s share of listening up from 67.0% to 67.6% quarter-on quarter
• Digital radio’s share of listening up from 24.6% to 24.8% quarter-on-quarter
• DAB radio’s share of listening down from 15.8% to 15.3% quarter-on-quarter.
At the rate of growth back then the government criterion of 50% of radio listening via digital platforms would not be achieved until around year-end 2018. Guess what? Three years on, and we don’t look like getting there any faster, and in fact 2020 looks a more realistic prospect.
We Want Digital. We Need Digital
Why do we even care about any of this? Well, back in the days of the last Labour government and off the back of digital switchover for television, everyone decided that what everyone wanted was the same for radio. The problem was – and is – that this was never really the case. Unlike TV, with radio switchover there is no discernible digital dividend of spectrum needed to free up bandwidth for mobile broadband or next generation phone services. Indeed the problem is the other way around
In fact there really NEVER needs to be a digital switchover for radio. The majority of radio listeners simply could not care less about DAB – even after more than a decade of being told by the government, Ofcom and the largest broadcasters that DAB is ‘the future of radio’. This is not to say many of us haven’t bought the sales pitch and bought DAB radios – I have one myself. The display that informs me what is playing is a really nice thing, but it’s not a game changer. According to Vaizey 45% of people now live in homes with a DAB radio, and analogue radio sales are now half of what they were in 2010 [DAB radio’s have been on sale in the UK since 1999]. We middle classes know that ‘digital’ means better. It is for television, so therefore it must be for radio, right?
Many of us have bought into the lie that Digital radio means you’re getting better quality sound and service. After all, isn’t this the one thing we consumers know to be true about DAB: that it provides better sound quality than your FM analogue broadcasts. It’s like CD quality was one of the original mantras. This is one of those half-truths. As with ‘HD’ TV where you can broadcast at a very high level of sound and picture quality , there is also a trade off between the available bandwidth and the amount of stations you want to broadcast. What this means for DAB is that where any station to broadcast at CD quality, where the audio in encoded at a rate of about 1.2 Mbit/s, you would only be able to get around one radio station on each radio multiplex (and without getting too technical here it means you’d only have a handful of digital stations). As you might guess if you end goal is moving all FM stations to DAB then you are not going to get very far. The truth of the matter is that generally speaking in the UK DAB radio broadcast at an inferior sound level to current FM.
But what about the ‘interference’ I get on my FM radio … erm, have you listened to a digital radio, and tried moving it around a room in your house? ‘interference’ is not just to domain of FM.
Of course if you want to get all techie then you also need to look at what type of encoding is used, the dynamic range compression, and if the resulting signal is further encoded/compressed before it gets top you. I’ll leave you all to look that up (but you should start with Frequency Finder )
Actually, according to FF your best bet for sound quality is to listen to digital radio through your Digital TV rather than your radio/stereo – a suggestion I have found to be true.
Speaking of broadcast and reception quality, what is also not mentioned out loud is that the UK broadcasts using DAB and not the superior DAB+ format. Should we care? If you were any kind of early adopter, yes. The superior DAB+ format (released in 2007) is not backward compatible with DAB, which means if you bought a DAB-only receiver/radio you would not be able to receive DAB+ broadcasts should UK broadcasters switch to it. Luckily for you, this doesn’t seem to be a plan anytime soon. Essentially we’re heading towards 2020 and beyond to roll out the equivalent of Internet Explorer 6.
But, hey, despite this Ed Vaizey said “the UK is at the forefront of developments in digital radio, and we have a huge opportunity not just with the UK market but also throughout Europe.”
Just how we are at the forefront when we are not using the best standard seems a bit of a hard one to understand to me.
What Else Needs to Happen
The other main criteria for setting a date for switchover is when national and local DAB coverage is comparable to FM and reaches 90% of the population; and when DAB is receivable on all major UK roads (with the associated development of all cars being fitted with DAB radios as standard).
With the BBC’s coverage at over 90% and Digital One at 89% the national DAB coverage commitments have essentially been met, but there is a long way to go with local DAB, which has reached 72% of households, which is why Vaizey announced the BBC, Commercial radio and the Government will together fund the build out of the local DAB tier to near commercial FM equivalence by 2016.
On the motoring front, more than 40% of new cars registered in July were fitted with digital radio as standard, according to Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Limited data. This is great, but most of the cars on the road are not new and even if every new car was being fitted with DAB it would be decades before most cars would be covered. So the government has to pursued us to upgrade on our own. To this end Vaizey announced the Department for Transport have agreed that Digital Radio UK will be able to work in partnership with the DLVA [car tax] and the Driver Vehicle and Standards Agency, [which now incorporates VOSA (who are responsible MOTs and MOT centres)], to use their communication channels with motorists from next year to let motorists know how they can upgrade their listening experience to digital.
I’d advise people to make sure it is dual DAB and analogue for now. Also if you like travelling aboard with your car you might not want to bother as if you get lumbered with a DAB only receiver not only will you not get any analogue radio but you wont get any DAB+ radio either from those countries moving towards or using that standard – Denmark, France, Norway, Italy etc .
The one national commercial multiplex [Digital One] is full, so as more capacity is needed if more national stations want to get in on the action Vaizey also announced this week that early next year Ofcom will offer the licence to build and run a second national commercial multiplex (Digital Two). I don’t know, it only seems like 2007 when Ofcom last did this. A Channel Four Television consortium won the licence only to hand it back in 2009 when they realised it wasn’t actually financially viable. In truth this should be less of an issue today, but I would still tread with caution. I say this because if we take the BBC’s share of digital listening out of the equation Commercial digital is a abject failure as we currently stand
Digital Radio in all its delivery flavours, DAB (and other formats) internet, mobile etc is here to stay. This is good. The desire to have a ‘switchover’ is not good, nor is it needed. The big players disagree of course. Ford Ennals (again), responding to Vaizey’s speech said:“ We welcome the Minister’s confirmation of a digital future for radio in the UK and today’s announcements about Government investment in DAB coverage and the ability to launch new national stations on DAB, which benefit listeners and enable the switchover criteria to be met. We will continue to plan for a radio switchover and the achievement of the criteria, and look forward to the future confirmation of a switchover date which will give industry the certainty it needs.”
But not everyone within the industry agrees. A coalition of 81 national, regional and local commercial radio stations, operated by 14 separate commercial radio operators (inc UTV Media and Celador Entertainment) argue the evidence shows that listeners are well-served by existing platform choices and that local commercial radio stations would be left severely disadvantaged by switchover plans, and that a switchover would not serve the best interests of radio listeners. I agree. If the move (exodus) to digital happens naturally, so be it, but don’t force it when doing so serves no real purpose.
To those wanting switchover I say, you need to do more to tell me why it is good for me – the consumer/listener – not you, the business. We have been told time and time again that digital would give us new radio stations, but the reality is what we are heading towards is the same old stations, just digital. Worse still, these will be stations that sound alike. Vaizey wants to help ensure this is the case too. He states that “it’s the content that connects with listeners. And over the past few years, listeners have seen the availability of different types of music increase dramatically from a wide variety of sources, including the internet and digital radio” and then says he wants Ofcom to undertake a review of music formats next year to see if these can be relaxed to give industry greater freedom to adapt to changing consumer tastes and to ensure competition.
For those not aware. Each granted licence by Ofcom has a format document where the station owner sets out what kind of station it plans to be, target audience, music that it will play etc. Breaching this format can result in fines and possible revocation of licences. A Format document encapsulates the character of the service a station is obliged to deliver as a condition of its licence. Ofcom previously simplified these format documents in 2008 requiring less detail, so now most only contain a headline or essential character of service. They are primarily designed to allow Ofcom to ensure all listener needs are meet in a given area, and to prevent all the stations in an area being radio 1 or radio 2 clones. It also helps to prevent a company winning a licence promising one format and immediately changing to one that is potentially more profitable.
How Vaizey expects these rules to be relaxed further – beyond removing them – is again, beyond me.
For me, the listening future – if younger listeners are to be captured is predominately going to be via mobile apps and services. Back in 2008 Ofcom’s then director of radio and multimedia Peter Davis recognised the problem with DAB, and said it needed a Freeview-style relaunch if it was to capture the audience’s imagination. This has never really happened – although of course you can receive most DAB stations via Freeview, Virgin, BskyB etc .
But there is, at last movement in the sphere with the BBC and commercial radio launching UK Radioplayer, which lets users listen live or catch up on the go. More open platform such as TuneIn radio do similar things. It is here, and not via DAB that digital radio growth will come.