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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?

Jack Leonard says:
21 January 2017

When FM came in (I’m old enough to remember) we were told the quality was so much better than AM. Now they tell us DAB is so much better than FM.
My four radios plus two Hi-fi and car sound pretty good to me. Cheap and nasties FM probably sound poor, but you get what you pay for.

Tristan Somaiya says:
21 January 2017

I pretty much skipped DAB for the house and went straight to streaming over the internet. With many wireless speakers available it makes so much sense plus you have the advantage of listening to radio stations from around the world!

Roger says:
21 January 2017

How many people will simply not replace their radios. We have a radio in nearly every room. Two of them are DAB the rest FM. Reception on DAB is terrible so we don’t listen to them and we wont be buying any more. Down turn on listening figures I fear

Colin Merry says:
21 January 2017

I live a heavily populated area in which I would expect to get a good DAB signal, indeed the coverage checker suggests that 56 stations should be available. I have 2 DAB radios in my house, and each can actually find only 3 stations. Can someone tell me how this is useful?
The sound quality on the few available stations is very similar to FM – the signal just arrives 2-3 seconds later!
My experience is that DAB is something of a joke.

I can listen to an FM station with some static and hiss on the signal.

I can’t listen to a digital signal that glitches and stalls.

Digital isn’t always better.

Interesting how many contributors quite correctly condemn DAB and DAB+ is being of poor quality in terms of frequency response and dynamic range. There may be a benefit in s/n ratio. I write as a former sound engineer and studio manager.
DAB was devised about 20 years ago and DAB+ is not much of an improvement.
In short, the change to dab is a waste of our money for the benefit of manufacturers and the government.
Please campaign against this unwanted change.

John Waters says:
21 January 2017

Here in Shetland we would lose both our local independent radio station as well as the BBC Shetland opt out. Due to the terrain, DAB in the car is almost useless. The decision to close the FM service is political rather than technical

Susan says:
21 January 2017

I am very annoyed that we may be forced to switch. We have many radios in the house and listen to radio 4 a lot. It will cost us a lot to switch. We were given one digital radio and found it poor quality (living in a rural area we do not get good signals) and it used the batteries very quickly so really needed to be plugged into the mains. Altogether a BAD thing. The sale of new cars is skewing the data as those people are not really choosing to switch to digital.

Bazman says:
21 January 2017

DAB signal just disitegrates into garbage with monotonous regularity . As far as I am concerned if it is going to be DAB or nothing ,then nothing it shall be .

Frank Ainger says:
21 January 2017

FM is analogue and produces a better sound. Why are LPs back in fashion -there are analogue too. I agree that Which should promote a campaign to save VHF FM radio.

I bought a Logik DAB radio and find reception poor compared to FM, with no noticeable improvement in quality. Additionally, the radio just eats batteries – certainly more so than any FM radio i have had, and clearly not environmentally friendly.

Cazbah says:
21 January 2017

I spend quite a lot of time in North Wales and every where I’ve been up there the DAB signal is non-existent or virtually unlistenable. Also waste of time trying to use a mobile there and don’t get me started on the pathetic Freeview TV coverage compared to elsewhere! Until the basics of these services are sorted out, to provide a trully universal coverage in ALL of UK, then turning anything off should not even be up for discussion. They act like nobody outside the home counties matters.

Search the Which? website and this demonstrates a very strong focus on DAB radio. I am fully supportive of Which? informing us of new technology but DAB is no longer new and we need a balanced approach. Please can we have a magazine report that looks at currently available FM and DAB radios objectively.

There are many consumers that wish to retain FM broadcasting for a variety of reasons. I would be grateful if Which? would represent consumers over this issue. I was very disappointed that Which? did not do more to question the hugely expensive roll out of smart meters rather than letting individual customers choose to have one if they wanted to.

I don’t want Which? to become an organisation that supports the wishes of the government and business in preference to supporting consumers.

simon scott says:
21 January 2017

Reminiscent of the digital TV debate. Still waiting for the signal to be boosted there too. I live 30 miles north of London and still suffer far more signal breakups than when on good old analogue. When most folk do not want the change why is it even on the agenda?

Plymjohn77 says:
21 January 2017

Because it is cheaper to transmit and it will release valuable wavebands for the government to sell off to profit-hungry companies.

Simon – Until Which? brought this up I don’t suppose the FM switch-off was on the government’s agenda. It is now.

I can only assume that the radio trade has provoked the article in light of the Norwegian decision. Hopefully now there will be a mass campaign against the closure of FM radio services. Going against the people’s opinion on this one is not worth the political candle.

The phase out of FM radio has been on the cards for years, John, and some have been campaigning to prevent it in this and other countries. Which? has helped by raising awareness of the issue and hopefully will help oppose the change. It would be interesting to know if we have any readers in Norway who could give an insight into consumer views in their country.

Thats easy Wavechange a massive majority were against it. It was forced on the population against their will just like PC laws were forced on them including other Scandinavian countries. I am just off a Norwegian website .

Interesting. Any links?

How about the Chicago Tribune : http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-norway-radio-20170108-story.html where they say 66 % were against it . Its a money saving exercise . Most of the media are covering up the fact the majority are against it by not publishing the publics opinion hope they don’t try that here.

Thanks Duncan. A majority rather than a massive majority sounds more plausible. There is a wonderful quotation in this article: “Listeners will have access to more diverse and pluralistic radio content, and enjoy better sound quality and new functionality.” A promise of better sound quality with DAB seems dubious. 🙂 It’s not just the UK and the US where politicians make interesting claims. I wonder if the costs quoted for FM any more accurate.

Wavechange – I realise the FM/DAB switchover has been in gestation for ages, but it really had slipped down to the bottom of the government’s in-tray, out of sight and out of mind. I was trying to suggest [not very clearly, perhaps] that this Conversation by Which? might resurrect the subject and lead the government to consider Doing Something. I still believe that for this new government other pre-occupations will supervene, but it might have been better not to drag this topic up from oblivion – or as I hinted elsewhere did the radio trade rattle Which?’s cage?

I assume that Which? has raised the issue because what is happening in Norway was widely publicised earlier this month, for example: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-38529435

As a radio enthusiast I am keen on improved public awareness of the issues.

Thanks, Wavechange. I missed that item. If the government hasn’t got something more important to sort out by 2018-20 I should be most surprised. Judging by the comments on this site I think there will be considerable opposition to the move although it looks like Ofcom is beavering away behind the scenes to make it possible as soon as the critical mass of listeners is reached. I wonder whether it will be an executive decision by the government or whether Parliament will have a say in the matter. General election due in 2020 if not otherwise pre-empted. It would be a bad move for any government to pick a fight with the radio audience.

As far as I’m concerned, governments are there to support the wishes of the people. It’s quite difficult for us to understand problems issues that government has to deal with but collectively we may have a better understanding of many of the issues surrounding radio broadcasting than the government and their advisors.

Wavechange , there was only one major issue in Norway-Financial , with a 5 million population (approx ) they couldn’t keep two systems going and opted for DAB . You may say, as I have said in the past , they have a large North Sea Oil Fund , quite right and they use it for the betterment of ALL the Norwegian citizens but with oil price being ( in my view ) manipulated (International politics ) down to a low price/barrel this has affected their numerous social /welfare programmes/OAP,s /etc so they are saving money by this action . According to the Norwegian website I said I visited their government said they had ” 85 % ” listening to DAB but the decision was unilateral but not when it came to the actual populations wishes , who by a large majority are against it and are not “happy bunnies “.

No opinion polls will be needed when the time comes. The sales of DAB radios will give the government the authority it needs to proceed if it wants to or is pressed by the industry to go ahead with an FM switch-out. The very threat of the change is probably enough to precipitate an increase in sales as people contemplating buying a new radio will likely choose DAB seeing it as the way ahead. Sensible buyers would get an FM/DAB dual-mode model.

But what are the “wishes of the people”. General elections, Brexit, independence, just show how divided opinion is. Understanding is with those directly involved who have seen a proposal from different viewpoints. Providing they consult the right people, and don’t rely on the usual “consultants” they should get a fair and balanced answer. In the case of DAB, one issue would be how much it costs us to replace FM-only radios with DAB.

I think it would be useful to examine the issues in detail. For example, how many people cannot reliably receive digital radio at present? I say reliably because reception can depend on weather. I suspect that this would provide sufficient evidence of the need for both FM and DAB.

Quality is an issue for some listeners. Perhaps it was not a good idea to have numerous stations with broadcasting at 64 kbps. Fewer stations and higher quality might offer a better compromise. We only need to scan through what is on offer on digital TV to see that more is not necessarily better.

Steve Whitt says:
21 January 2017

Looking through the comments here and elsewhere it seems that a concerted voice needs to speak for listeners. And Which should rise to that challenge.

Currently bodies like Ofcom are wedded to DAB and for what ever reason wish to plow on despite its technical and performance limitations. Government sees digital as “the future” without any real understanding of the issues being discussed here. They may have been seduced by the possibility of earning money from the sale & reuse of the radio spectrum currently used by FM radio – even that is probably a mirage a long way off in time. (Before re-use the band has to be cleared in the UK and in coordination with neighbouring countries.)

Sadly many digital radios in use and still being sold have no upgrade path to DAB+ or any other future enhancement, so they will become quickly obsolete once a network upgrade occurs.

The economics of DAB favours big broadcasters such as the BBC & national commercial stations. Despite recent developments in local DAB broadcasting, the multiplex owners are in effect a monopoly choke point on the broadcast chain. Today an FM or AM broadcaster has freedom to chose whether to own, rent or lease their own transmitters. With DAB they have no choice and have to pay the subscription fee imposed by the transmitter/multiplex owner. That means that broadcasters on low budgets (e.g smaller stations, hospital broadcasters, student radio etc) will not be able to reach an audience via DAB. To date several have tried and abandoned their efforts and have reverted to online streaming. This means the extra listening choice afforded by DAB is in effect more programmes from fewer sources.

It is sadly ironic that audio quality in DAB radio has been a race to the bottom with a decline from channels that used 256kb/s in the early days down to 64kb/s these days. Compare that to increasing internet bandwidth (allowing better quality streaming from the likes of Tidal) and ever increasing TV picture quality. Digital has so much potential but DAB has fundamentally turned the business model on its head and we will come to regret these choices in years to come. I expect DAB will join videodisc, Betamax, minidiscs et al in the dustbin of bad technical choices.

Finally its worth noting that although DAB is a world technical standard, it is not being deployed as such. Many countries are already building DAB+ networks. And several trying other routes to digital radio altogether; the USA has tried HDRadio (not a success) and satellite radio (Sirius) and India has invested heavily in Digital Radio Mondiale (another foolhardy investment).

Fundamentally, it strikes me that Which

1) ought to be clear about the limitations of DAB radios and the whole system
2) should not promote radios that are not equipped at point of sale for DAB and DAB+
3) should lobby for minimum audio quality standards on the broadcast chain as a push back to race to the bottom.
4) should expose the conflict between programme choice & audio quality
5) should support the retention of FM until digital can be made fit for purpose in the UK.

Peter says:
21 January 2017

I agree with Phil.
DAB radios are slow to switch on and have poorer sound quality than FM if similar quality receivers are compared. DAB reception is bad or non-existent in weak signal areas. The Greenwich time signal on DAB is late because of the encoding and decoding delays so it is wrong and should not be broadcast on DAB.

The reduced power needed by transmitters is negated many times over by the extra power needed in thousands of receivers and so DAB increases overall energy use.

The only DAB advantage – lots of stations – just gives air space to lots of poor quality programs.

Victor says:
21 January 2017

I use the car most days with its DAB radio. I have yet to go a day without losing signal at least once and usually several times.
So no we are not yet ready to change to DAB.

Plymjohn77 says:
21 January 2017

Graham999 says he downloads music on to his phone if he wants to listen to it, but what quality of sound does that give? I bet it comes nowhere near FM on my (recently rejuvenated) Pioneer receiver!

Good to hear the name of Pioneer again Plymjohn , yes those older FM receiver/amps are far superior to many modern FM receivers. Analogue layout not cramped miniature ic,s . No wonder the old stuff is being brought back to life with the younger generation many hi-fi mags had detailed tests for them like HI-Fi Choice best buys books. I have several Hi-Fi year books around the 70,s one the year -1978 I am looking at now gives- guess what as the star attraction and detailed report ?? thats right a Pioneer FM/AM tuner . I have the full spec of many models including SN ratio distortion at 15Khz= 0.5 % thd FR =30 to 15Khz +- 0.2 db : sensitivity (stereo ) 14 MICRO VOLTS at 300 ohms Those figures are for the radio section the amp section has much lower THD.

Maybe not but it is good enough for my purpose 🙂 Actually i seldom listen to music on my phone. I listen to an AM/FM radio for Radios 4 and, and DAB for 4 extra.

The point was trying to make is I could if I wanted to and don’t need loads commercial DAB radio stations to satisfy my music needs. Interestingly most/all of the young people I know use their phones to listen to music. When they come round before going out they plug their phones into my AMP or small bluetooth speaker to share it.

Maybe the days of high fidelity are over?

While I have given up arguing about getting a thumbs down the one above leaves objective rationality to enter the world of Disney , I quoted electronic engineering statistics and know for a fact that many modern receivers which have FM don’t hold a candle to those old models where the peak of FM technology was reached i. All that has happened now is that the same engineering principles have been crammed into a small area of PCB with component that are actually inferior to many earlier passive components like polypropylene capacitors etc and that instead of a discrete transistor layout where fine tolerances can be adjusted an IC of dubious make is stuck in that supposedly does the job of the older layout , it doesn’t. Cheap components are fitted that change tolerance once heated or used over a period of time . Could the person who marked me down tell me in engineering terms why the modern stuff is so superior or is it just a case off I don’t like old stuff –so there ?? My mentor in FM was the well known Audio design Engineer John Lindsay Hood who has published many papers on the subject with great approval from the Electrical Engineers Institute and Wireless World .

James Middlemiss says:
21 January 2017

Yet another unbalanced, flawed report. Claims of extensive testing and research that goes into its articles is starting to get rather tiresome and lacking in credibility. Its claims to be working for the consumer is becoming more diminished as time goes on.

Far too many of its reports give results that are at variance with that of the reader – this DAB report being a clear example. I believe that the Which? Test Lab Buyers Guide should have a column indicating readers/users test scores, which should ring alarm bells in the mind of the user where a material variance from that of the Which? score is indicated. On second thoughts, perhaps this would be too much of an embarrassment for the management.

The articles that start off these Conversations, James, are not the product of Which?’s product research and testing. They are topics for discussion and are sometimes deliberately thought-provoking or speculative in order to tease out a reaction. Unfortunately the reactions do not always inform Which?’s future attitude as much as contributors would wish and to that extent I agree with you. In my view Which? does seem to have a pre-formed outlook and is very reluctant to modify that in the light of public opinion. I think it seeks to be in the forefront of new product appreciation whereas the UK consumer seems to have a more conservative approach, hence the organisation frequently attracts criticism [as in this Conversation] that it is not on the side of consumers but is lapping up the latest ideas from industry. Luckily, Which? subscribers and participants are a canny lot and can see through the hype. Personally I don’t like articles like this because I feel they compromise Which?’s authority, and Which? probably doesn’t like people like us because we challenge their authority.

I am not commenting on the accuracy or otherwise of this particular intro but we should expect, as a responsible body, when Which? hosts a topic that it is accurate and presents a fair and balanced case. I don’t want inaccurate statements from Which? simply to provoke or garner reaction. Many people take what Which? says at face value and it should respect its position. You do learn, however, that this is not always the case and need to look at its output with critical eyes.

Patrick Taylor says:
21 January 2017

Perhaps when I next write to the Ordinary Members of the Consumers Association, the charity that owns and nominally controls Which? Ltd, I should be asking this question. I have apprehensions that Which? Ltd does not actually represent the consumers as much as it could or should.

As to the plethora of electronics on display as tested etc. bear in mind that Which? may be receiving a payment from the vendors if you look or buy from this site. This has been true since 2007.

I do not think there is a conscious decision not to push durability of products or repairs, or even to stick with old technology but if it is an income source then it must be a known factor. Unfortunately the Accounts do not show this information, or in fact how much is earned from the Best Buy logos despite member requests.

If you are a subscriber you can become an Ordinary member at no cost by application.