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Is the UK ready to switch off FM radio for good?

Last week, Norway became the first country in the world to start switching off FM radio signal, going digital only. Is the UK ready to follow suit?

On Wednesday 11 January, Norway began the process of switching off its FM radio signal for good to go digital only.

Proceedings started in Nordland (one of the least populated areas of Europe) and will expand to the rest of the country by the end of the year.

The decision for the switch-off appears to be largely economic.

It’s expensive to get FM signals to a population scattered all over a country riven with fjords and high mountains. It’s also cheaper for radio stations to transmit broadcasts in DAB, rather than FM and DAB.

However, the general population won’t see any of these savings and many will have to shell out to update their radios, as millions of models will soon be rendered obsolete.

Those against it (two-thirds of the population, according to the country’s Dagbladet newspaper) said the move was premature and being forced upon them.

Is the UK next?

Understandably, many in the UK are now concerned about a move to digital-only radio.

And the fact that a week after turning FM off in Nordland, Norway’s DAB system temporarily went down will do nothing to allay any fears.

The UK government has said it won’t start a wholesale radio switchover until 50% of us are listening digitally and DAB signal coverage is comparable to FM.

But with that number now at 45.5% and new cars with digital radio as standard at 86%, we’re not far away from meeting the first target, which means the switch could start as soon as the end of the year.

Are we ready?

But rather than rushing in, as appears to be the case in Norway, I think it’s important we’re given adequate time to prepare.

For starters, the government needs to continue its work to strengthen the DAB signal, especially in rural areas where it can be patchy.

You’ll also need to update your old FM radios.

For your home, a decent quality DAB radio will set you back at least £40. In your car, you’ll either have to buy an adaptor, which cost between £50 and £200, or pay at least £40 for a whole new model, costing from between £90 and £400, to be fitted.

It isn’t all bad news though, as digital transmitters need less energy than analogue transmitters so are cheaper to run than FM radios.

There are also many more stations available on the digital spectrum – almost double in some areas. Plus, if your reception is good, the sound quality on DAB radios is far superior to FM.

Do you prefer to listen to FM, DAB or internet radio? Are you worried that, like Norway, the UK will switch off FM before everyone’s ready?

Phil says:
21 January 2017

” if your reception is good, the sound quality on DAB radios is far superior to FM. ”

That simply is not true. DAB is terrible, it’s one reason why the uptake has been so slow. It’s based on an outdated MP2 system and is mostly broadcast at 64kps; it’s rubbish.

” digital transmitters need less energy than analogue transmitters so are cheaper to run than FM radios. ”

Might be true of the transmitters but as your own tests have shown the receivers use up much more power than their analogue equivalents which is especially important for battery powered radios. That’s not good news for consumers who I thought were the main concern of Which?

This is a very poor article and little short of being nothing but a puff piece for DAB and as far as the FM switch off is concerned how about never?

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Excellent riposte, Phil; DAB sound quality – especially with Classical music – doesn’t come close to good FM.

Also during cold (or Hot) weather the FM reception just degrades and can usually still be heard, with DAB it’s all or nothing (same as UHF television reception) so you end up with nothing, and this can go on for several days.

I have spent most of my life working for BBC Radio at Broadcasting House. I can assure members that DAB definitely doesn’t give better sound quality than FM on VHF. You just need a good aerial to get the very best audio quality possible on FM. Many of the DAB stations are transmitting at below optimum quality to preserve bandwidth and crowd more stations into the multiplex. Some transmit in mono for the same reason. Whatever benefits DAB offers, it isn’t better quality sound.

Actually only a few stations broadcast at 64kbps mono, like Absolute Radio and BBC World Service. However the majority of stations broadcast at a bit rate only a little higher. E.G. BFBS at 80kbps, Capital UK 80kbps, Capital Yorkshire 112kbps. 80-118kbps is very representative.

Most of the BBC broadcast at 128kbps, and radio 3 gets an astonishing 160kbps. Even 160 kbps is very a low quality signal though. It sounds fine in the sense that it’s clear, but it’s far from lossless, and lacks too much. Considering CD quality is 1440kbps, it shows just what we are losing.

However the uptake in comments shows categorically the objection to a suggestion of switching off FM. Personally I only have DAB/FM sets so would need to get new radios to receive higher bit rate DAB+. If and when DAB+ gets rolled out in the UK.

Given that FM is widely described as being superior in quality to DAB, many would miss it. I generally tune into DAB unless the signal is weak or battery life is low. Signal being the main worry for many. The horrific sound that DAB makes in earphones with my portable DAB radio is completely unacceptable. Using DAB though it only out of habit. Recently I have been tuning into FM when available on the channel I am listening to, like Classic FM.

Overall though I think the beauty of DAB is more channels. Yet we managed perfectly with FM/AM when it was all we had.

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In 2015 there were around 29 million dwellings in the UK.

At the end of Sept 2016 there were 37.4 million vehicles licensed in Great Britain. (1.5 million new vehicles were fitted with DAB radio in 2015)
Figures from gov.uk

If every home had just 2 FM radios and 30 million vehicles had FM radios, around 90 million FM radios would become obsolete.

That figure is likely to be much higher as we have at least 8 FM radios as will many other households.

What a waste.

I would very much like to retain FM broadcasting. Apart from the quality issue, FM and DAB coverage vary and neither provides full coverage. I am not keen to listen to Radio 3 because of the quality issue but most of my listening is to speech on Radio 4. In the car, I find fewer interruptions when using DAB and if the signal drops for a few seconds, the radio switches over to FM, which is very useful.

It would be helpful to see the costs of providing radio services but if the government is going to be pretty unpopular if it goes ahead with suspending FM broadcasting when 50% of listeners are already still using the service.

I am concerned that many modern FM/DAB radios perform rather poorly on FM compared with older FM radios. I strongly recommend that anyone buying a radio should check the performance on FM, or they could be disappointed. Years ago I paid almost £200 for a Pure Evoke-3 radio and the performance on FM is not as good as the pre-DAB radio that I bought in 1975.

Radio enthusiasts who are having problems with radio interference caused by LED lighting might like to contribute to this long running Conversation: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/led-bulb-radio-interference-dab-test/

Anon says:
21 January 2017

We have two car radios, plus in the house one ordinary radio, and two expensive hi fi receivers which have FM radios built in. The receivers would cost many hundreds of pounds each to replace with similar quality, if it is even available. Reception of DAB where we live is awful. Why should we spend all that money to move to a much worse radio system.

Steve Doherty says:
21 January 2017

Much of this article is, if not simply inaccurate, illogical.

DAB does means more stations for listeners (which is, broadly, a good thing) but it is a deeply flawed distribution mechanism for all the reasons highlighted in earlier comments. It’s a pre-internet technology and no longer fit for purpose, but we seem to be committed to it.

Talk of ‘audio quality’ in ill-informed puff-pieces like this need serious examination, too. But it’d get too geeky, too quickly!

Please can we have a Which? campaign to save FM radio?

If Which? will commit to this, members of Which? Conversation will help provide the support needed to take this forward.

They had better not switch off AM or FM as we can only get DAB occasionally on a good day- and we are not in some remote mountainous area, just in rural East Devon between Sidmouth and Exeter. Not that we can get a mobile signal either – please think about people like us before switching off our lifelines (or better still, do something about getting us into the 21st century!)

This doesn’t read as a “puff piece” to me. It sounds as if Alison is as concerned as the rest of us.

OK, I shouldn’t live in South Wales. I deserve all I get, with poor/non-existent mobile reception, limited tv satellite channels, you name it. But FM reception isn’t too bad. (OK, you get bad interference sometimes in the car.) Are we going to lose that as well?

OK, let’s talk about a more “important” area. We lived in Cambridge until recently, and we were unlucky enough to have a DAB car radio. Even in the city itself, sitting in the endless traffic jams, DAB dropped out continually. Totally useless. The garage that fitted the radio tried their best, but got as hacked off as me after a while.

OK, internet is taking over radio as well these days, but it’s going to be a long time before all cars have that technology. Unless you can fix the traffic jams, guys, please leave us FM radio.

I travel regularly from North to South Wales and often no FM signal , never mind digital signal is available. Often I have to listen on medium and long wave e.g. to Radio Wales. Radio Cymru ( Welsh language service is available only on FM. Radio 4 = Long wave!

I think we should take some of the sensationalism out of this topic before it runs away with itself.

The Intro says “The UK government has said it won’t start a wholesale radio switchover until 50% of us are listening digitally and DAB signal coverage is comparable to FM.” The important point is that the government has NOT said that it will switch out the FM service as soon as 50% are listening digitally. I guess we have many more years of FM radio before compulsory conversion to DAB is implemented.

As is usual with statistics it is easy to get in a muddle. It’s no good adding the number of cars with DAB radios to the number of homes so equipped and saying the 50% mark of people listening digitally is half the aggregate number of receivers. We can only listen to the radio in one place at a time and I would suggest that the number of car installations is irrelevant. We don’t have a radio in our car but if we did we would certainly choose DAB because it has added benefits over FM when driving such as traffic alerts and emergency announcements; that is probably the prime reason for DAB being the most popular in-car system. For 95% of motorists the quality of the radio reception is not so critical in the way that it is in the home. I have travelled thousands of miles in vehicles equipped with DAB radio and it is quite clear that reception is still inconsistent and fades out entirely in some places.

There is another muddle in the following paragraph: “It isn’t all bad news though, as digital transmitters need less energy than analogue transmitters so are cheaper to run than FM radios.” This mixes up transmitters [which broadcast the signals] and receivers [which we have in our homes]. I would urge that this paragraph be reviewed and clarified because it makes no sense at the moment.

We had a good quality FM/DAB radio about twelve years ago but the DAB reception was far inferior to the FM reception so we stopped using it and eventually gave it away. Thinking that DAB had grown up and got better I bought a new, Which? Best Buy, one about a year ago; it is no match for FM radio, and I am not a particularly critical listener. With two FM radios and two DAB radios in the house I can assert quite confidently that 99% of our radio listening is on 50% of our radios – the FM ones. The authorities can tell how many homes have a DAB radio but they can’t tell how many people are listening to it when they also have an alternative FM receiver! Sometimes we use the radio signals on Freeview through the TV and sound bar to give a pleasant music-listening experience in the sitting room.

Whether double the number of radio stations available on DAB is a good thing or not is a matter of personal preference; I expect a number of them are just regional duplications.

I don’t personally know of anyone who uses the internet for their radio listening but I suppose it suits some people and avoids the need for separate apparatus. The sound quality will never be as good through a computer or other device so I doubt if the internet is used for serious listening.

Unfortunately I occasionally have to endure music via the telephone when phoning companies and that is the base-line from which all other reception should be judged.

Point of information, John: FM does support traffic announcements.

Thank you Alan; I thought it might but was not entirely sure. I haven’t been in a car with FM and traffic announcements. People still seem to choose DAB for their car radio. Perhaps it is pressure selling by the dealers and the option of extra channels.

Traffic announcements are available on FM, provided that the radio offers that option. In my view car radios are where DAB is most useful. As far as I know, DAB car radios also provide FM so that the user can choose which they prefer – which is likely to depend on where they are driving due to differences in coverage.

I agree with all the above. DAB music quality is, to me, indistinguishable from FM quality. DAB radios use far more energy than FM radios, so I hate to think what is the extra energy consumption for the UK when tens of millions of FM radios are replaced by DAB radios. And their battery life is very short. Also, DAB radios are extremely irritating when you turn them on – it seems to take up to 10 seconds to tune to your chosen channel (versus less than a second on old FM radios).

And, Which?, I also agree that your article sounds like a paid ad for DAB. Pease be more critical and analytic about this proposwed changeover.

We can’t receive DAB radio at all (and TV reception is dire). Perhaps they should concentrate on providing a signal before saving money and selling off more airwaves. We listen and watch mostly through the Internet.

Lynda Jane says:
21 January 2017

Before the government goes any further, have they yet identified a hole big enough for all the non-DAB radios to be put in when we throw them away?

David says:
21 January 2017

The report fails to mention that Norway, along with most other European countries, uses the far superior DAB+ system which is possibly more comparable to FM in terms of audio quality. Here in the UK most digital stations are still using the outdated DAB standard which is inferior to FM. A few stations on the SoundDigital multiplex and on some of the smaller local multiplexes have made the change to DAB+.
What is scandallous is that some of the cheaper DAB sets sold by the likes of Tesco (DCR1401B/G) only work on DAB, not DAB+. This is despite The Department of Culture, Media and Sport publishing “Minimum specifications for digital radio receivers in the UK” in February 2013 which states that a receiver sold in the UK must be capable of decoding a DAB+ stream of up to 144 capacity . Which? ought to investigate this issue and warn consumers of exactly which receivers and which companies are still selling selling digital radios that fail to include the DAB+ standard – often its not at all obvious at the point of sale.

Another issue for consumers is that digital receivers use vastly more power than AM/FM receivers. A typical AM/FM radio might last up to 300 hours on battery, but you would be very luck to get even 30 hours with a digital radio.

Incidentally even in Norway, I understand that local stations will continue to use FM so its not a complete switch off as you would think from reading the above article. And certianly in the UK too it has always been the case that if national networks close on FM, local community stations would still be able to continue on FM.

Frankly on this whole FM versus digital issue, it is about time that Which? started championing the rights of consumers rather than the digital radio lobby.

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David wrote: “Another issue for consumers is that digital receivers use vastly more power than AM/FM receivers. A typical AM/FM radio might last up to 300 hours on battery, but you would be very luck to get even 30 hours with a digital radio.”

I would like to see evidence that this is typical. As I have stated elsewhere, I am very strongly in favour of retaining FM but feel that it is important that we base our case on accurate information.

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I have been using rechargeable batteries for radios since before they were on sale to the public. I have also modified radios to allow them the batteries to be charged in situ rather than removing them every time they need to be charged.

I’m interested in reading technical articles, but what is most relevant here is typical battery life on FM and DAB, so that we have reliable information. Perhaps there is a recent Which? report that gives this information.

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Thanks Duncan. Double is not ten times, as suggested by David.

30 Hours on a DAB!? I’ve never managed more than three. Went back to FM.

These reports don’t relate to battery use, as far as I can see.

No, they refer to power consumption which is related. My DAB radios are all mains operated or in-car. My “garden” radio is am-fm and is solar powered / wind up; it has given sterling service for many years.

It’s high battery consumption of DAB sets that concerns most people. I know that the battery life of one of my DAB/FM radios is halved when I run it on DAB. Even though the battery pack is rechargeable, it’s still annoying. I’ve just checked the mains consumption and that is the same on DAB and FM.

Maybe one answer is to provide more batteries, or a higher capacity rechargeable battery?

It is one solution but obviously adds to the weight of portables. My larger portable (Pure Evoke-3) uses a battery pack that costs about £35 to replace. The advantage is that whenever the radio is plugged in it recharges the battery.

Radios that use standard (AA etc) rechargeables don’t allow batteries to be charged in situ, so it is necessary to take them out an put them in a charger. That’s because someone could put in non-rechargeable ones, which could result in leakage or explosion. It’s a pity because standard rechargeables are much cheaper than specialist battery packs. I can see a case for developing standard size batteries that can be used in a variety of products such as phones, cameras and even radios. That would save a lot of waste, competition and mass production would bring down prices and we would not have to scrap rechargeable products because batteries are no longer available.

Well I hope the government is going to pay for us all to buy new DAB radios in our homes, and also pay for us to have our car stereos upgraded or replaced!!

I should add, Alan, that any such replacement must be like-for-like !

I don’t do HiFi, mainly speech and news headlines., and I can’t tell the difference. But DAB’s time signals are inaccurate compared to FM. I use both – mainly for the accurate pips.

I use DAB radio mainly because I can access Radio 4 extra on it and I like to try digital stuff. I am though totally against turning off AM and FM for the same reasons I was in 2011 when this last started to emerge. I wrote the following to the chair of the enquiry:

“First I am a great fan of radio and everything digital, however from what I have seen so far they don’t mix especially when you are on the move.

As far as I can see DAB radio is essentially a line of sight technology, it works great in my house as I can see the aerial out the window. When I try it in the car or anywhere “hidden” from the aerial it just doesn’t work. FM radio however works brilliantly everywhere in the UK and I can pick up AM and Radio 5 Live at night the other side of the Alps or Pyrenees.

In terms of quality I cannot detect any improvement of DAB over FM and even if there was I don’t really see the point as I only listen to speech stations on the radio. If I want to listen to music I can download it onto my phone and listen to it.

I also don’t see the point of more stations as the BBC is excellent and commercial radio stations have lots of annoying adverts, and it seems, like TV, the more choice the worse the quality.

So, unless these reception issues can be solved I suggest radio lovers start the no to digital campaign.”

Six years and quite a few DAB radios later, nothing has changed my view plus it is clear that while the batteries on my pocket DAB radio only last a few hours, the ones on the equivalent much cheaper AM/FM radio last for weeks. I guess the transmitters use less energy because they are producing a weaker worse signal that doesn’t reach the places FM does. So no energy saving argument either!

In terms of more stations and choice, the internet now provides a good way for all sorts of radio stations to start up. I can now access the radio broadcasts of friends who left the UK years ago to work for radio stations in the US, Greece and anywhere in the world. Local ones based around charities and hospitals now broadcast on the internet too. So. no justification there I can see.

It is obvious this is not about providing a better service, but as usual selling something else off, in this case probably to mobile phone companies I guess so some people can get bigger tax cuts….or is that just a cynical view?

Digital is undoubtedly a useful technology for radio but the UK use of DAB is deeply flawed.
1) the actual digital processing technology is already obsolete,
2) in theory DAB is capable of high quality audio but economics conspires against this. One multiplex transmitter carries multiple stations/services and so the more it can squeeze in the more money it can earn. The way it can do this is to sell lower bit rate channels (e.g 64kb/s rather than 192kb/s) or to offer mono rather than stereo channels to broadcasters. The consequence is “lots of programme choice” but at lower quality than on FM or even on internet streaming.
3) The power equation is a fallacy. Yes a DAB transmitter uses less power but each DAB transmitter covers a smaller area than its FM counterpart. This is inevitable because DAB transmitters use higher radio frequencies than FM radio does. So more transmitters are needed. However the increased power consumption of radios outweighs the saving at the transmitter – unless of course no one is listening :_)
4) User statistics; It is possible to ask people whether they have a DAB radio but it is much harder to measure real listening figures. Most DAB radios also have FM reception and many users will not recall (or be interested in) whether they are using DAB or FM. Additionally though a home may have a DAB radio most homes will have several radios, with most still waiting conversion to DAB.
5) Channel Choice; much is made of the fact that DAB offers more channels than FM but anyone wanting true radio choice will use internet radio which offers many more stations from the UK and around the world as well as on demand listening. Consider the rapid growth of on demand and websites like the Radiogarden.
6) User devices. FM receivers are ubiquitous, cheap and low power. Most mobile phones include a “free” FM radio. Smart phones and home computers with internet access have access to the world of internet radio and the listener choice that offers. Even TVs now offer a dozen or more radio channels. None of these devices involve extra expenditure for radio services and they avoid outlay on a new DAB box which is really a one trick pony. Finally DAB radio has failed so far to address the issue of radio portability; a home will likely need several. In contrast the generation that grew up with smart phones and tablet computing expect to take their services with them in one battery powered device from place to place, The lack of DAB portability and high power consumption also compromises the use of DAB radio as a form of emergency communication during natural disasters
7) Coverage; This will require sizable investment in transmitters. This how many years it has taken for mobile phone coverage to reach acceptable levels. Furthermore the nature of digital transmission means that there is no real fringe area reception which is possible use FM or AM radio. DAB is more suited to dense urban areas rather than wide open rural areas. Ultimately planners will sacrifice the small number of listeners in rural areas. Consider why Radio 4 longwave covers every corner of the UK and much farther with just a couple of transmitters. Here you have a trade-off between channel choice and coverage.

Also during cold (or Hot) weather the FM reception just degrades and can usually still be heard, with DAB it’s all or nothing (same as UHF television reception) so you end up with nothing, and this can go on for several days.

Here in a small town in South West Scotland, I would have to travel 50 miles to pick up a DAB signal and “there are currently no plans to introduce DAB to my area”. Mind you, FM reception is so dire that it is medium wave or internet only for radio. Don’t even get me started on the very few channels on our TV repeat transmitter or non-existent 3G and 4G phone signals!