Friday, 14 June 2013

Are we ready to "Go Digital"?

The publication of  the Government’s  “Go Digital Trial” report this week has reignited the debate over a possible “digital switchover” date. Never mind that this is a false analogy with the digital TV switchover, where the old analogue frequencies were needed to make the new system work and had to be vacated, there is still a lot to consider to safeguard the digital future of all UK radio.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is hailing the digital radio test as a success, saying listeners who are in a good coverage area love digital radio. The project, overseen by Ipsos/MORI earlier this year, saw 237 people in the city of Bath remove analogue radios from their lives, to see what it was like living with only digital radio over a six-week period.

It is interesting that they chose the city of Bath to undertake this test. I see that one of the conclusions was that respondents welcomed the wider choice of stations. Try that in a city like Sunderland where the most popular station is not available on DAB!

The fact is that DAB, as currently established, can carry FEWER stations in many parts of the country (at decent stereo audio quality) that the analogue system it hopes to replace. And that’s even if the smaller stations could afford to go on DAB!

The current plans for reorganising DAB multiplexes will give most areas a wider choice of national and quasi-national brands but do nothing to let smaller local and community services use the platform.  Furthermore listeners now like to receive many other specialist and distant stations which equally cannot afford to be on every DAB multiplex.

Many commentators argue, correctly, that if national and regional stations all moved onto DAB, this would free most of the FM band for smaller commercial and community stations. But this raises a fundamental point – why is broadcast radio in the UK adopting a new technology which will only work for some of its stations? Why is there no plan for local stations to go digital? Are we saying that in ten years time local and community radio will be the only category of media NOT available on stanard digital radio devices?

As I’ve commented before, DAB must be the only digital media technology which offers consumers a narrower choice of content than the analogue system it purports to replace. It’s as if only established artists and labels could issue CDs while new bands and independents had to remain on vinyl. Or only the big Hollywood studios and distributors could produce DVDs, while smaller film makers should be happy to see their product distributed on VHS cassettes!!

Where is the road map for ALL radio stations to be available on some generally receivable digital broadcast platform?  And, for the national and regional services (where a switch to DAB+ would improve quality and capacity on the current multiplexes) what is the plan for that changeover?

Before talking further about the digital switchover we should be clear what the future delivery mechanism will be – and count how many homes currently have DAB+ receivers!

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