Sunday, 12 May 2013

Is DAB the solution or the problem?

The future of radio is digital. I cannot believe than in ten years time audio broadcasting will remain as the only medium delivered by old-fashioned analogue means. In far less than that time we will all expect to get our radio programmes via the digital links which will empower every other aspects of our lives. I already find it frustrating that I cannot pause and rewind a radio show or press a button to hear my favourite station’s traffic news at a moment which suits me.

But is DAB the most practical delivery method?

The great thing about radio broadcasting has always been that it is so straightforward, simple to set up and energy-efficient. DAB is technically brilliant but very complex and requires a large infrastructure. It assumes large groups of stations all wishing to cover exactly the same areas. For smaller stations DAB is far more expensive and cumbersome than the old system. For listeners, particularly with so many music stations now using a low bitrate in mono, DAB offers little benefit and, for many, a worse listening experience.

In many areas DAB simply does not have the capacity, even if they could afford it, to carry all the existing stations available locally on AM and FM, let alone the thousands now broadcasting on the web. I think DAB may be the only digital technology that offers fewer choices at lower quality and greater cost than the analogue system it replaces!

The reason is simply that DAB is OLD TECHNOLOGY.  By the standards of today’s digital devices it is prehistoric. It pre-dates the internet and did not anticipate the huge range of content expected on demand nor our expectation of interactivity.  DAB was developed as part of a European Union research project with the first transmissions being made in Germany in 1988. The specification was finalised in 1993. By contrast, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s original proposal for what would become the World Wide Web was not published until 1989 and technical standards only began to emerge following his establishment of the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994.

For now, FM radio remains the best option for local broadcasting but Ofcom has been told to promote digital as the way forward and is looking on, apparently impotent, as analogue radio suffers and dies.

Given that frequency shortage is given by Ofcom as the principal reason why they cannot licence any new FM local radio stations it is ironic that, as a result of their own decisions, the utilisation of this scarce resource has become so wasteful.

For example, in north-east England TFM, now simply rebroadcasting Metro Radio, covers an area housing 788,467 adults in Teesside, Darlington, County Durham and North Yorkshire using a single frequency from a transmitter high up on the North York Moors. Meanwhile, based in Darlington, Star Radio now broadcasts its programmes to a set of smaller areas, all falling within the TFM footprint, using not ONE but FIVE frequencies. At least one of these in the south of County Durham could easily cover the Darlington area as well if a directional limitation originally designed to protect the separate Darlington licence were removed, but Ofcom refuses to do this on the grounds that they still regard Northallerton, Darlington and Durham as separate licences (even though they carry the same programmes)!

Of course frequency planning is a complex issue and the same frequency cannot necessarily be re-used at another site or at higher power, but using five different frequencies to cover a population of 433,000 adults when another station covers all of those, and 350,000 more, using a single frequency cannot be sensible or efficient.



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