Radio Ga Ga

The nonsense in the Digital Economy Bill looks like it might become enacted without any debate in the House of Commons. This article describes one part of the madness - the proposed shutdown of FM radio broadcasting in favour of DAB (and friends).

Let's hope you never leave old friend
Like all good things on you we depend
So stick around 'cos we might miss you
When we grow tired of all this visual
You had your time - you had the power
You've yet to have your finest hour

Excerpt from Radio Ga Ga
Roger Taylor

Radio Ga Ga

I won't discuss the madness of draconian powers being proposed in the bill, such as disconnecting people from the internet on the basis of hearsay and speculation, but will limit myself to one area of interest - the proposed dismantling of FM radio. The following points have all been taken from the very recently published House of Lords report Digital switchover of television and radio in the United Kingdom1. In essence, the report concludes that it would be "best" that mainstream analogue FM radio transmission be phased out and replaced by digital only services. I would argue that it is not for the best of the listening public only for certain vested interest groups.

  • In 2009, 66% of listeners said they used analogue radio whereas only 13% used DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting). Despite a huge amount of DAB promotion, over many years, only 13% use it. The BBC recently announced that they were closing some of their digital only services which they presumably wouldn't do if the number of listeners/cost ratio were acceptable.
  • The previous milestone of getting digital listening figures to 50% by 2013 was unlikely to be reached. A "concerted drive" would be required to increase digital listening figures. In effect, the government set a target of reaching 50% digital listening before contemplating a move away from FM. Now that achieving the target doesn't look likely the government should drive people to digital to justify themselves.
  • Sales of digital radios only account for 28% of total sales. This again demonstrates a lack of demand for digital broadcasting.
  • Ofcom's latest research found 94% satisfaction among radio listeners for the content they receive. That lays to waste to the idea that people are clamouring for new content which can only be transmitted by digital.
  • Unlike with television the spectrum released, by FM shutdown, has little alternative use or value. So, there is no pressing reason to cease FM transmission other than government dogma.
  • It is estimated that as many as 100 million FM radio sets would effectively be obsoleted in the UK. Just think of the environmental waste that would create. It would be extremely difficult to reclaim the technology from a radio produced any time in the last forty tears. However, these radios perform very well today.
  • FM radio provides better quality sound (at 256 kbps) compared to as low as 96 kbps for some DAB stations. Lower quality might be acceptable for talk radio but certainly not for music.
  • Some local and community stations will remain on FM. By doing this the government will effectively kill-off those local stations. Many housholds have multiple radios - one in the kitchen, one in the living room, one in the bathroom etc. Does the government really think people are going to have two radios in each location or swap between FM and DAB all the time? I don't think so!
  • "Nevertheless, we have to accept that the path to digital has already been taken. The Government say that, with competing media moving to digital, it makes no sense for radio to remain an island of analogue" Absolute nonsense. Television, for example, is not a direct competitor to radio. Radio can be consumed while doing other things, e.g. driving a car, which cannot be done in combination with watching TV. People listen to the radio, very often, exactly because it is a listening only activity. If listeners need other features they can use their TV or computer. FM receivers are very low power and can be easily incorporated into mobile 'phones, MP3 players and other low power devices. DAB signals, which have to be decoded, use approximately 10 times as much power and cannot be put into low power devices.
  • DAB coverage is only 75% of the population. Note that the coverage is by population. This means that huge rural areas, small towns and villages do not get any DAB reception at all. Additionally, lots of areas that do get DAB reception will sometimes receive poor signals. Unlike with FM if DAB reception dips you will get total loss of the station. The BBC insists that achieving digital parity with FM coverage (98.5%) would be technically challenging, take a very long time and be extremely costly.
  • In car listening accounts for about 20% of total radio usage. However, of the 30 million vehicles, in the UK, less than 1% currently have DAB radios. The cost and complexity of changing FM radios to DAB in vehicles makes it unlikely that the exchange would ever be made. Many people also have in-car GPS navigation with integrated FM radio, that feature would also be obsoleted.
  • There is no digital equivalent of the FM traffic information service.
  • The Lord's report also recommended that DAB radios should be fitted with multi-standard chips which can receive both DAB and DAB+ transmissions. Of course, if the UK were to move to DAB+ in the future it would obsolete all the DAB radios currently being used. Even more electronic waste.
    In the trade-off between choice of stations and quality of sound, broadcasters have so far prioritised greater station choice...
    House of Lords[1]

No joke

The move to digital only transmission of radio in the UK is ill-conceived, being rushed through parliament and benefits only those who are interested cheap broadcasting and hardware sales. Analogue radio transmissions should be maintained and the money which would have been wasted on DAB could be used for maintaining the FM transmission network. Added features to radio broadcasting can be achieved using satellite radio, internet radio and DAB (DAB+) for those that want it. The services broadcast today on FM by local radio, commercial radio and the BBC can continue to be enjoyed by everyone using their existing equipment without creating more landfill. People will be able to continue listening to their favourite FM shows on low power devices while jogging or travelling to work.

It may be April 1st but the whole Digital Economy Bill is no joke. I have highlighted one area of concern but there are lots of other issues in this bill. Even if you wholeheartedly agree with the contents of the bill you should at least be concerned that it might get passed without parliamentary scrutiny and public debate. Tell your MP that you don't want the Digital Economy Bill to go through the wash-up. Do it today, there is little time to waste.


Notes

  1. Digital switchover of television and radio in the United Kingdom House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, 2nd Report of session. Published 29/03/2010.

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