Government writes FM death warrantSteve BushFriday 09 April 2010
The Digital Economy Bill has become law, quelling arguments over the FM radio switch-off. A result of the pre-election legislation "wash-up", the move comes barely a week after a well-balanced House of Lords report questioned the wisdom of moving all national and regional radio broadcasting to DAB. It echoed many criticisms voiced over the bill, which is likely to consign all FM and AM radios to landfill in five years, except for listening to ultra-local (town-scale) FM stations. On the plus side, much of the world DAB industry revolves around decoder chips and modules from UK companies, in particular Frontier Silicon. These firms can expect a bonanza as consumers replace FM radios with DAB receivers. "The passing of the Digital Economy Bill into law is great news for receiver manufacturers," said Frontier CEO Anthony Sethill, "It provides the industry with the confidence it needs to increase investment in digital radio products across all sectors of the market including home, portable and in-car." The main reason for switching off FM is not to boost radio sales, but to cut broadcasting costs as many stations are currently simulcasted on FM and DAB. FM switch-off is not thought to be a cloaked Government money-raising venture as re-licensing VHF spectrum is likely to raise only a tiny fraction of the 3G sell-off. Digital radio switch-over arguments are unlikely to cease for long as the new law constructs a framework of conditions rather than fixing a date. It requires DAB coverage and listening-share to reach a certain level before FM switch-off can be initiated, followed by a delay before the transmitters are actually turned off.
Digital radio switch-over under fireSteve BushWednesday 31 March 2010
In a report, the House of Lords has questioned digital radio switch-over provisions in the Government’s forthcoming Digital Economy Bill. The Bill, largely based on the Government’s Digital Britain report, proposes the transfer of all AM medium wave and FM VHF broadcast stations to DAB, leaving only ultra-local. The transfer date depends on certain criteria, but is intended to be 2015. The Lord’s report ‘Digital Switchover of Television and Radio in the United Kingdom‘ is comprehensive, being based on over 150 written submissions and stakeholder interviews. "The surveys show that there is strong public satisfaction with the present FM system and with the range of programmes that are provided," said the Report. "The case for radio switchover has not been made to the public although the date of switchover is only a few years away". This said, the Report is not anti-DAB and accepts the need for change, including moving away from simul-casting stations on DAB and FM as the doubled transmission costs are tough on the BBC and are close to crippling commercial radio broadcasters. "No one can be satisfied with the present position. There is an urgent need for clarity which was emphasised by almost all those who gave us evidence. No way forward is entirely painless but at the very least the public deserve to know what is being planned," said the Lords. "They need to be assured that every effort is being made to minimise their financial loss and that they will benefit from a better radio service. As taxpayers, they need to know how the costs of the programme will be apportioned."
Amongst other topics, some of the fundamental statistics underpinning the choice of switch-over date are discussed. "An analysis of digital versus analogue radios sold in 2009 shows that, in the category of standalone radios, also known as kitchen radios, digital sets accounted for 63 per cent of all sales. Whilst this statistic for kitchen radios suggests a major shift in listening habits, Grant Goddard, an independent radio analyst, has pointed out that, if other types of radio are taken into account – for example, portable handheld radios, clock radios, mobile phones and hi-fi systems – the picture is very different. In 2009, sales of digital radios made up only 28 per cent of total radio sales". It also comments that sales figures for digital radios include radios which have both digital and analogue tuners as most DAB radios now on sale incorporate an FM tuner. Product development firm Cambridge Consultants (CCL) has also been questioning the approach taken in the Government’s Digital Economy Bill. CCL has consumer and wireless product expertise, and has developed a Wi-Fi enabled internet radio concept called Iona. Wi-Fi radio was largely absent from the Digital Britain report. "It is too soon to turn off analogue radio," CCL commercial director Duncan Smith told Electronics Weekly. "On one hand the Government is legislating for more sustainable product life cycles, which consumers are starting to care about; and on the other hand it is causing 100 million radios to be thrown in the skip in 2015." Smith claims he is not anti-DAB, but pro appropriate technology.
He argues that, unlike TV watchers, radio listeners are usually concentrating on another activity – driving or in the kitchen for example – and do not need or desire the additional services made possible by digital technology. "This is not to say digital services are not important," he said. "For radio, listen-again and on-demand services would be a huge step forward". However, the Internet can provide such services, plus a back-channel and hi-fi quality bit rates, far better than DAB. When interactivity or hi-fi is required away from fixed access: "If we look forward to 2015, I can see mobile broadband being sufficiently prolific that if you want more than analogue radio it will be there for you," said Smith. "This could be cellular, or it may be WiMax or some other system. If there is a current need, someone will provide the bandwidth." He summarised: "Consumers will not adopt technology for its own sake. Many of today’s radio listeners in the UK are satisfied with FM most of the time, only listening to two or three stations. They will only make a switch if there is a much more compelling reason than what is currently argued for DAB. Hence, proposing a switchover to DAB without considering the merits of IP based radio services is premature".