/ Technology

Let’s not be forced into a DAB radio switchover

Woman listening to radio

FM doesn’t have room for new radio stations and transmitting on both DAB and FM costs broadcasters more. Fine, but this isn’t reason enough for us to fork out hundreds of pounds to replace all our FM sets.

As a nation we’re being ushered towards a digital radio future – one without national FM stations. The government’s Digital Radio Action Plan includes criteria to ensure that a switchover isn’t announced until there’s improved coverage and a certain percentage of us have tuned into DAB.

Great, but if these criteria aren’t met, does that mean we won’t switch? Only 25% of listening is currently on digital platforms, according to RAJAR figures from February this year. The target for a switchover announcement is 50%, so there’s quite a way to go.

DAB coverage is to improved before the announcement too, assuming a decision can be made as to who will pay for it. And it seems likely that a substantial proportion of the cost will be paid by the BBC – so it’s coming from licence fee payers pockets then?

Why switch to DAB radio?

I’m not opposed to a switchover – I listen to DAB – but I’ve never gone out of my way to buy a digital radio to replace my perfectly functioning FM model. Why is that? Being honest with myself, it’s because I don’t think it’s worth it – decent sounding DAB radios aren’t cheap.

Although DAB provides me with the extra stations and scrolling text that I like, it’s not enough to persuade me to replace my FM bedside or car radios. Plus, scrolling text wouldn’t really help me when I’m driving.

It’s clear that there needs to be more benefit to switching – improved content or better quality would help. I’m not certain that ‘Ambridge Extra’ – which recently aired for the first time on BBC Radio 4 Extra – will have Archers fans swarming to buy DAB radios. But maybe I’m wrong.

Some people are happy with the stations they already have on FM. And though I’d miss my DAB stations if they were taken from me, I’d still prefer that over being left without a radio in my car, or a £100 bill to upgrade it.

Half of us will have to tune into digital

I’d estimate that half of my radio listening is on digital platforms. So if everyone in the UK was like me, we’d be part way towards a DAB switchover by now.

The methods of measuring digital listening and coverage are going to be crucial. It’s highly likely that the listening figure will come from RAJAR, which bases it’s measurement on just a sample of the population.

Fortunately for FM fans I’m not part of that sample right now, but this does lead me to question whether a sample of the nation is enough to decide upon a switchover for all?

Comments
Guest

I am inclined to agree with most comments here as I mainly listen on my phone’s radio all night and would not like to be forced to use a technology that would require me to buy new hardware, I would rather the BBC cater for my needs (as I pay for them) than to have to find an alternative.

Guest
Peter says:
6 September 2012

The statement in the article at the top of this conversations saying “decent sounding DAB radios aren’t cheap” rather presupposes that decent sounding DAB is actually possible!

Look at the September 2012 review of Internet Radios which also contains some strange remarks.

It says that one of the drawbacks with internet radio is the sound quality, although it only mentions Listen Again programmes saying that they are transmitted at “only 48kbps”. I do not believe that this is true. There is indeed a low quality option of 48 kbps but most people with an adequate internet connection will choose the higher quality option of 128 kbps. But this is not the whole story, please read on.

Elsewhere on the Which? Website, there is the surprising statement that “BBC Radio 4 is broadcast on DAB at 128kbps, but 48kbps over the internet”. This is factually wrong because Radio 4 on DAB often drops to 80K mono (for example when Five Live Extra is broadcasting) and BBC live internet radio is at 128kbps. A lower bandwidth version is also available. This is not comparing like with like because DAB and internet radio use different methods of encoding. DAB uses an out-of-date system called MP2 (the technology that preceded MP3 which most people will have heard of). BBC internet radio uses the superior AAC encoding which allows a comparable quality of sound to be broadcast using considerably less bandwidth.

This means that 128 kbps AAC (internet) will normally sound considerably better than 128 kbps MP2 (DAB).

Even the low bandwidth (48 kbps) option on Listen Again should, by virtue of its better encoding, sound at least as good as the 80kbps mono signal on Radio 4 DAB.

So the Internet Radio article should really have shown sound quality as an advantage over DAB so far as BBC is concerned.

In fact Which? Magazine really ought to be making the point whenever thay review digital radio that the sound quality of DAB as currently implemented in the UK is inherently poor, even assuming decent reception.

Which? should certainly be campaigning against switching off FM if the alternative is DAB. What would be to the ultimate advantage of listeners would be to campaign to switch off the obsolete DAB system and replace it with the new world standard, DAB+.

Guest
Kam says:
19 June 2014

Thank you Katie for being the voice of reason! I just cannot see the point of DAB if, like me and many others, one is perfectly happy with FM.

My beloved Eton Traveller has just packed up after many years of excellent service, giving me an excuse to look at DAB (yet again). But as with previous research, and try as i might, I just am not convinced DAB makes sense for me personally nor, I suspect, many others, including those who have already gone down the DAB route as it is the ‘in thing’. It feels like a terrible con. Who on earth is benefiting from this nonsense? Certainly not the radio listener !

PS Katie, if still there, has your position on DAB changed since 2011, the article date?

Guest
Wayne Allen says:
27 June 2014

Hi,

With the popularity of streaming and the ready access from many devices to internet radio I wonder if DAB has already been overtaken by technological advances, The ever faster broadband speeds should allow internet radio to broadcast at much better bit rates with, presumably, better quality listening than is currently being offered by DAB stations. With so many people happily enjoying FM why not keep this, scrap DAB as a digital platform and use internet radio instead? No doubt, if there are flaws in my thinking on this there will be some helpful posts to correct me.

Guest

One of the main benefits of DAB is for car radios. Streaming is not an alternative here.

Guest
Wayne Allen says:
28 June 2014

Hi Wave Change,

This is one of many links showing how internet radio can be received in cars:-

http://www.gizmag.com/livio-radio-bluetooth-internet-radio-car-kit/20071/

Of course all these links might just be a giant conspiracy, but I will leave it up to readers to make up their mind on the veracity of these links.

Guest

Thanks Wayne for pointing out my error. I accept that this might be a possibility for the future but judging by the problems I have using mobile broadband in many areas, it might be well into the future. DAB radio has worked much better in my car than I had hoped for and it will switch over to FM if the signal is poor.

Guest
Barney says:
19 February 2015

Let’s not be forced into a DAB radio switchover, indeed.
Why are DAB radios so expensive?—they cost around the same amount as digital television receivers/tuners despite obviously only receiving and giving a fraction of the information!