/ 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

My wife and I are TOTALLY against the cessation of national FM transmissions for, among others, the following reasons:

* We have 9 FM receivers (4 high quality tuners (i.e. several hundred pounds worth), 4 radio alarms and 1 car radio). Each one of these would need replacing at considerable cost.
* If all our FM receivers become redundant, there will be significant increase in waste costs to be dealt with under the WEEE regulations.
* DAB signal processing uses more complex circuits than FM, hence the power requirement for receivers will increase. This does not help the UK energy strategy, let alone my own.
* The replacement DAB transmissions are, very probably, likely to be of lower fidelity than the FM transmissions. See BBC white paper WHP061.
* ‘Live’ transmissions will actually be subject to delay (due to the encode/decode circuitry), therefore, for example, the hourly time pips will be incorrect.
* It is very unlikely that our listening habits will change with the increased number of stations. The advent of digital TV didn’t really change our viewing habits. It has, however, meant that the visual quality has improved with HD transmissions. This viewing enhancement is coupled with the availability of larger TV screens due to LCD and Plasma technology. This is an advantage that cannot be applied to radios. And the higher quality audio capability is not likely to be implemented due to commercial considerations cited in various sources. Does anyone really sit and watch the scrolling text on their DAB radio?
* The MPEG and HE-AAC codecs required for DAB are proprietory. Therefore, a large public system will be supporting a private system. This cannot be an open system and there will be no competition as only a single vendor can supply the codecs.

In short, there is no real advantage to us, as consumers, in the phasing out FM in favour of DAB. In fact it will incur significant costs and we appear unconvinced that it will deliver any audible benefits.

Why, why, why must FM be phased out for DAB?

dubs1948 says:
10 May 2011

The BBC needs to save money but is constantly advertising DAB radio. I would like Which? to ask the BBC how much money it would save by totally abandoning DAB and associated advertising. The public would not suffer since digital radio would still be available on the internet and satellite platforms. If they keep FM nobody would incur an unnecessary cost in purchasing another receiver. DAB is already superseded by DAB+ and, I believe, that better systems than DAB+ exist. Early adopters of DAB might not be able to upgrade to DAB+.
I would like Which? to form an expert group on digital radio available for comment whenever digital radio is discussed in the media to correct any misinformation Members will have their own ideas as to who should be in such a group but I would certainly welcome the presence of Steven Green from Hi-Fi World, if he was agreeable to the idea.

I, too, think it is pointless to switch of FM and make everyone go digital. Why? Well, the only reason I can think of is so the government can make money by selling off wavelengths. Even when the signal quality has substantially been improved, there seems to be a range of reasons why keeping FM is a far better option: 1) DAB radios simply drink battery power. I saw one advertised as ‘giving up to 10 hours of reception on one set of batteries’. My various FM radios give up to one month on one set of batteries. 2) A big thing is made of the fact that we can listen to loads more stations. Yet I’m sure the vast majority of people are like me and regularly listen to just 2/3 stations, with many simply listening to just one. 3) Quite apart from the waste of having to replace all the mains and battery driven FM radios we have accummulated over the years, car radios will also have to be replaced or adapted. And digital reception is either there or it’s not. Yet when listening to Five Live in my car, I really don’t object to poor reception. Yes, I would like better reception all the time, but I least I get a continuing feed.

Overall I think DAB is worse than FM. Although both have similar sound quality, DAB has annoying breaks in reception, my portable radio and its telescopic aerial are more sensitive to position than when tuned to FM, and digital stations take longer than FM to come through after pushing a preset button. I use FM unless listening to a station only transmitted digitally.

This “portable” radio’s batteries last only about 2 hours, so it’s not really portable and a 240v power unit is needed,. It uses more than 50 times as much electrical power when receiving DAB as my 45 year old battery FM portable, in which the batteries last for weeks. There are no reception problems with digital listening ‘on-line’, sound quality is good, but my desk top PC uses 1000 times the power of my old FM portable.

For a year I owned a car with a factory fitted DAB receiver, which only got enough signal strength in some places when parked. When moving, it made a loud distorted buzzing noise, or no sound at all. I deduce DAB car radio is at present of little use.

I think the Government is being misled by the radio industry into backing a national radio change from FM to digital. There has been no public consultation. The Digital Economy Act was forced through Parliament with inadequate debate. I’ll be very cross if the four national FM stations I listen to are closed, which will infringe consumers’ right to decide individually how to use services in the best way for them. I think it would be a scam to oblige consumers to pay for new equipment which will be more costly to run and may well give a poorer service. I think it will be the worst environmental example to make us get rid of working radios when we’re already using resources much faster than they can be replaced. The present system has no consumer problem and a changeover should be cancelled.

Annie says:
22 May 2011

I agree with almost everything that has been said. On that basis I am going to buy another FM radio ( I dont care for my new DAB for reasons already mentioned). Please can someone recommend a good model? There doesnt seem much choice as all the stores are plugging DAB. Thanks.

Dave says:
27 May 2011

There was consultation with industry about 7or 8 years ago about the future use of the spectrum and a report issued. Naturally enough this was mostly contributed to by commercial interests and industry that had their eyes on the radio spectrum for their own benefit. As far as DAB was concerned I pointed out that people had barrowfulls of FM radios that were perfectly good for their needs. But governments have been selling off the family jewels for years now and can’t resist the temptation to cover their waste by any means.

Rupert says:
6 July 2011

I agree with most of the recent comments. There has been no clear articulation of any real reason for switching to DAB other than the ‘better quality’ arguments (totally disproved by the many comments above) as or ‘extra radio stations’. i have no desire to listen to BBC 6,7,8 or specialist minority stations. The existing number and quality of FM stations are entirely adequate. Like one of the other commentators I have about 10 radios (in various rooms, plus garden sheds, DIY portables and crucially 2 TMS radios) Why o why should I be forced to ditch all these and splash out on DAB replacements at £80 plus each?
Politicians beware at the next election!

According to industry data cited in Parliament by Communications Minister Ed Vaizey, in the third quarter of 2011 some 17.8% of new cars registered were fitted with DAB radios.

My comment on this is what he didn’t say:
“Or, put it another way, some 82.2% of new cars did not have DAB radios fitted!”

Now that’s hardly a ringing endorsement from the motor trade – despite all the promises of “things to come”!

The deadline will have to continue to move, and the technology will become increasingly prehistoric!

Dump all my old AM radios! I have about 10 – no way! They will always be some countries using the AM band in Europe as its cheap and covers distances.

Why waste a fortune on (a) buying a DAB set when FM is superior audio quality (b) having to buy significantly more batteries. The cost of batteries for DAB is still vastly in excess of that for “old fashioned” radios, so many aspects about DAB have to be linked with comments of the “better things to come” type.

I bought one DAB set and found that does not work in some rooms of my house! A friend who works in retailing tells me that customers often return their radios as they “don’t work properly”. I hardly use mine, should have returned it.

“The Emperor’s Clothes”?

“Let’s not be forced into a DAB radio switchover”

A letter to your MP setting out some salient points might be one way of achieving this.

Maybe your MP would sponsor an Early Day Motion? Its worth asking.

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.

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+.

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?

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.

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

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.

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.

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!

Ian Rodwell says:
4 October 2016

We live in a part of the country where FM reception is not great and the digital TV signal is very restricted. I doubt that switching to digital radio would have any positive benefits whatsoever. At a rough count. I reckon that switching off the FM signal would render useless about 20 radios, Hi-Fi tuners, radio alarm clocks, mobile phone radios and car radios. That would cost us hundreds of pounds to replace and all for no benefit. I would strongly encourage Which? to fight the digital switchover.

I hope that we will have the choice of DAB and FM radio for years to come.

I had a look to see what Which? has to say about the switchover and found this undated article: http://www.which.co.uk/reviews/radios/article/digital-radio-switchover-explained

PLEASE could all articles on the Which? website carry the date of publication? I have no idea whether this one is recent or a few years old.

@ldeitz Hi Lauren – Please could you ask for all articles on the Which? website to show the publication or revision date? This has been mentioned by several people on Which? Convo, but it has not happened.

I’d agree that sort of information is essential.

Hello @wavechange, I know it’s been a while since you asked this question. I’m pleased to report that as part of a migration project of all which.co.uk reviews, the product description pages now include a launch date and a testing date, for example http://www.which.co.uk/reviews/fridge-freezers/lg-gbf59nskzb/review

These details currently feature on all migrated pages, if you’re spotting pages that are missing these dates it’s likely to be because they haven’t yet been moved onto the new system.

Thanks Lauren. Onwards and upwards.