Why the digital radio switch over is a pipe dream

At a speech yesterday at the Intellect Consumer Electronics Conference, the UK’s culture minister, Ed Vaizey said that the coalition Government would continue the policy of the Labour Government and ‘aspire’ to have the UK’s FM frequencies ‘switched off’ by 2015. The plan is for all national and regional radio stations to be broadcast exclusively on digital platforms, while FM would be used for ‘ultra-local’ stations.

However, as Vaizey himself said, the plan would only go ahead once digital radio was available to at least 90 per cent of the population, and when 50 per cent of the radio listening audience was actually using digital. This essentially means that it’s never going to happen – at least in that time frame, which means that as a policy it’s about as limp as a Pineapple Studios dancer's handshake.

The problem is that, despite millions being poured into advertising its benefits, the public just isn’t buying into DAB in anywhere near the numbers the Government needs for it to hit its targets. Only 10 million DAB sets have been sold since its big launch in 2002 - while estimates for existing FM radios range from between 50-100 million units.

But the problem isn’t really kitchen radios – it’s in-car radios. Figures suggest that over 70 per cent of all radio listening happens in the car, but with no world-wide standard for DAB, most car manufacturers have just not bothered with it.

The Government has pledged that it will work with the motor industry to get digital radios fitted as standard by 2013 but, as it stands, Ford is currently the only manufacturer to offer a factory-fit DAB radio. Browse the online stores of the major car head-unit manufacturers, such as Sony, Panasonic and Alpine and you’ll notice the complete lack of DAB-ready units.

This writer reviewed a Sony DAB car radio back in 2006, but clearly there have been no developments since then. Panasonic has ignored DAB completely, as has Alpine, which tweaks its US models for the UK market – and as DAB doesn’t exist in the US it’s simply not on its radar. JVC does support DAB, but only via an external add-on box.

The only spot of light for in-car DAB is that Halfords will soon start to stock the Pure Highway - an in-car adaptor that will sit on the dashboard like a sat-nav and send it over to the existing car radio via an FM transmitter.

So why is the UK pretty much alone in the DAB world? Well, British incompetence of course. Digital radio in the UK is a little like its trains - it has the wrong technology on the line.

The UK, with the BBC as the main backer, decided in its wisdom that it would try and be the digital radio pioneer and adopt a digital system ahead of anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, it settled on DAB – based on an MP2 audio codec that was literally something out of the 1980s – despite the fact that far superior codecs were available at the time, not least AAC, as used by Apple.

As such, DAB is inefficient and requires too much bandwidth and too much power to deliver equivalent quality and coverage to FM. As such, DAB bit-rates are heavily constrained in the UK, which means that even where coverage is good, it sounds worse than FM. It also means that coverage is very dodgy in many areas and many users complain of odd effects, such as having coverage on one part of the house, but not another.

This is in complete reversal of every other consumer expectation for digital, which with CD, DVD, Blu-ray and Digital TV, has meant an improvement in quality (let’s ignore Channel 5 shall we – everyone else does).

Quel surprise then that the Germans the Swiss and the Australians have turned their noses up at DAB, and will be going with DAB’s inevitable upgrade – DAB+, which is designed to solve DAB’s limitations.

However, DAB+ is not forwards compatible, so while most current DAB radios also support DAB+, older units don’t. This means the UK can’t move to DAB+ because it will cause millions of existing DAB radios to stop working, and it can’t turn off FM, because if it does, the UK’s number one tune will in all probability be the Sound of Silence.

So what is the way out of this mess? We think the Government should bite the bullet and move the entire system over to DAB+. Along with the existing analogue radio amnesty it should also budget for a huge digital radio amnesty, enabling anyone with an obsolete DAB radio to hand it in for a unit that works with DAB+, all paid for by the money it would make from selling off the FM frequencies.

It’s not going to happen of course, and instead we’ll be struggling on with DAB, with the panacea of greater listening choice used to gloss over the on-going issues of poor quality and poor coverage.

In the end then, FM won’t be replaced by DAB – it’s what’s going to keep it alive.