/ Technology

Is DAB really the future of radio?


DAB radio is coming. It’s been coming for years and it’s still not here for everyone. It’s not in every room in every home and it’s in very few cars. So do we really want it?

I quite like DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) – I regularly tune in to digital–only radio stations. But unless I could get clear, uninterrupted digital radio in every room of my house, in my car and on my mobile phone, a national switchover from FM to DAB would feel more like punishment than progress.

Farewell to FM?

The previous government set a target date of 2015 for switching radio stations over from FM to DAB. After this point nothing but ultra-local and community radio stations would be available on FM. To receive national radio you’d need DAB or the internet.

But 2015 is nothing more than a target. Yesterday Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announced the Digital Radio Action Plan and confirmed, ‘We will only consider implementing a Digital Radio Switchover once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital’.

How listening will be measured doesn’t appear to have been determined yet. Listeners in rural areas, cars, more vulnerable listeners and those on low incomes are unlikely to be part of the 50% of digital listeners that start the switchover process. Still, they’ll be the hardest people to convert.

Cost of switching

Which brings us neatly to cost. Who will foot the bill for the transmitters needed to improve coverage – and how much will it cost us to replace every FM radio? Not to mention the environmental cost of disposing of all the analogue radios after switchover.

It’s not like the government isn’t aware of the issues. Yesterday’s Digital Radio Action Plan announced key elements to investigate – and most of these were on the list.

This is all useful stuff and (aside from the fact that maybe we could have used some of this thinking earlier in the process) getting car manufacturers onboard will also be key.

Some are making encouraging noises but that only helps get DAB into new cars. What about the cars we already own? We’ll need retro-fit devices or in-car converters – another cost to consider.

With so far still to go to improve listening figures and coverage, it seems a switchover is still many years into the future. But what will happen if, after so much investment, digital listening never reaches 50%? Is ‘not switching’ an option?

warpy says:
12 July 2010

How people listen to the radio is changing. having a box on the shelf that is dedicated to listening to a pre-programmed schedule is old fashioned. I love this style of listening. But I also enjoy being able to choose. Using the internet, be it on computor or mobile phone, I have access to, not only the exellent bbc i-player, but pretty much every other radio station in the world.
Where does DAB fit in to this? I’ve got one tuned permenantly tuned to 6 music, which seems an expensive way to listen to something I’ve already paid for in the licence fee..

Well it does not matter about what is old fashioned or what is new fashioned it is about what people want.

jojo says:
14 July 2010

Has the quality of digital radio improved? I bought (quite an expensive) one years ago when they were quite new and was quite disappointed that the signal wasn't as clear as it should be. They'll need to be better than that if people are being forced to stwitch over.

Richard Kinley says:
15 July 2010

Anybody complaining about the quality of DAB has obviously never listened to Radio 5 Live on medium wave.

I bought a Pure DAB radio convertor for my car (£70) and it's superb.

Alan Cleckner says:
15 July 2010

I am suspicious that the only reason the previous government pushed for a changeover to digital radio was in order to be able to sell off the the freed-up radio channels to the highest bidder whilst hoping for an economic stimulus as we all rushed out to buy replacement radio sets!
The new government appears happy to follow suit.
The existing FM radio service provides the population with excellent coverage and very good audio quality. If the current digital TV switch-over is anything to judge by, then we can be sure that there is no guarantee of a significant or consistent improvement in the audio quality to be received on digital radio. As has already happened with TV, there is every chance that minimum quality standards for digital radio will be lowered to meet the demands of commercial organisations for more broadcast channels.
I'm all for new technology when it offers genuine improvement, but I cannot yet see any merit in being forced to replace every radio in my home and car (at great expense!) and then throwing the old but serviceable ones out just to satisfy the whims of misguided politicians.

Toneboy says:
15 July 2010

I listen to both DAB and FM, enjoying both, in fact I would find it hard to live without my radio.

That said I do find some of the DAB radios on sale do not provide a good reception, those with the wire whip aerials and prices are still to high for these radios to become common in every room of ones house or in the work shed.

I now listen in the living room area of our house thru the TV or in the office thru my computer, which offer high quality reception.

Allan says:
17 July 2010

I'm all for progress and the move to new and better technology but I wish the transition was better managed. I have both DAB and FM radios. We often have sets on in different rooms so we can listen to a programme as we move about the house. The problem is that the sound from each type is out of sync. Why can't the FM analogue signal be transmitted with a slight delay so the FM and DAB sounds come out at the same time?
My other problem is that I'm about to change my car. The uncertainty over the future of analogue radio means I don't know whether to spend significant extra money on a DAB car radio or not.

I bought a car with a DAB radio fitted and it just doesn’t work! It receives a signal for only a small part of the time, the rest either noise or nothing. If I set it to the same station on FM, it goes to DAB as soon as it gets a signal, and then noise or nothing as before. I suggest have nothing to do with DAB in a car and lobby your MP to stop the FM switch off.

rmgalley says:
17 August 2010

The problem with delaying the analogue signal is that it cannot provide a solution for all DAB radios. The reason for this is that the decoding circuitry in the receiver introduces is own delay and these delays are all likely to be different. The only likelihood of of a constant delay would be if all receivers used the exact same semiconductor chips and all receivers were receiving a clean RF signal which did not necessitate the error correction circuitry being activated and any additional buffering.

As someone has said further down, why mess with a working, proven system (FM) because of a problem with its potential successor?

If you go for a DAB car radio just make sure it is DAB+ capable. The UK and Denmark are the only two major counties sticking with DAB. The new world standard is now DAB+ which is being adopted nearly everywhere else.

Keith Evans says:
21 August 2010

The delay is my main complaint. This si not simply between FM and DAB, but between different DAB radios. I have two DAB radios in different rooms (from the same manufacturer) but they are out of syncronisation, making it difficult to listen while moving from room to room. Why can’t all the DAB radio manufacturers get together and agree a fixed delay, which could then be software engineered into their radios. This would certainly help. I for one will not buy further DAB radios for this reason. Is DAB simply an expensive white elephant?

Gavin Blackett says:
19 July 2010

FM works. The quality can be simply superb. Generally DAB can't match that, even before you start to consider the poor coverage. I had a DAB radio in my last car. The signal was so patchy. In the centre of Birmingham I'd lose signal due to the tall buildings. Driving from my home near Tamworth to either Nottingham or Coventry, I'd lose the signal. When it works, it's fine, but I could barely go a whole journey without the signal cutting in and out – and that's in an area of the country where the coverage is supposed to be good! Quite a number of the stations I listened to no longer broadcast either.

I'd hate to think of the environmental impact of throwing out millions of redundant FM sets.

There are simply way too many negatives and very few positives.

Sophie Gilbert says:
21 July 2010

The usually excellent BBC iPlayer is as I speak "unavailable at this time" on my computer. I switch on my FM radio and, hey presto, I can listen to my beloved Radio 4! Seriously, why do we have to have one or the other and not both?

Also, asked from an environmental point of view, what's going to happen to all of our analog radios if ever the analog signal is switched off?

AlB says:
23 July 2010

Reception on DAB seems problematic..at least here in Dorset. I was not able to get a consistently good signal on my sony mini hi fi (BX70) using the supplied wire aerial. I connected it to a roof aerial and was fine till last week when I again started to get 'boiling mud' interference–since then I have had to retune practically daily and sometimes it doesn't even 'find' the BBC radio channels. I am beginning to wonder if we are being conned about digital services as Freeview also seems variable..regularly dropping out.FM/AM are not brilliant here but at least are bearable. To paraphrase someone else it is the 'message not the media' that is important

Quite apart from reception difficulties, which can be serious, the DAB system was designed to carry four BBC services which now broadcast eight. When DAB was introduced, the BBC tried to claim CD quality but they had to drop that because it evidently wasn’t true and that was before they had lowered the bit-rates to accommodate the extra four stations. Even at its best DAB was never as good as FM. In the meantime the rest of the world have adopted more efficient compression systems such as DAB+ and DRM. The UK is blindly charging ahead with DAB and its ancient MP2 compression terrified to frighten the horses by mentioning DAB+. I will not buy a DAB radio unless it can also receive DAB+ and recommend others do the same. Despite Which’s advice, PURE’s Flow radios and Revo’s Heritage are the only DAB+ radios currently available (they also receive Internet Radio). Roberts say a USB provision may be made in future, so the buyer needs to read the specs very carefully. I predict that once this unnecessary switchover has occurred, they will start talking about another switchover to DAB+. Even then we cannot be sure that bit-rates won't be lowered further to accommodate yet more stations. The TV industry has shown how to do it: first wide-screen then flat-screen then high-definition – all requiring new receivers – they won’t believe their luck if we fall for this DAB scam!
Isn’t it curious that innovation in television is pushing up quality, yet in radio the opposite is true?

Heather says:
23 July 2010

I find DAB quite frustrating. Unless the signal is perfect the radio cuts out so I can't listen at all. If FM is not perfect I can still listen, even if the sound isn't completely pure. I do like the bigger choice of stations though.

DAB Radio or as it should be renamed " Disappointing Audio Bandwidth " radio in it current form falls a long way short of FM radio in all major aspects.
1st Poor DAB sound quality, give an FM radio the same signal strengh that is required for a DAB radio to even begin to work and you would have crystal clear reception giving sound quality way beyond the best that dab can offer at its highest bit rate.
2nd Poor reception as dab radios need a very strong signal in order for all of the data to be able to enter the digital to analogue circuits to undergo lots of processing before we hear any sound out of the loudspeaker, slightly less than perfect and the radio makes a burbelling sound then a total loss of sound. fm will remain good for listening upto 50 miles away from a small local radio station, as for Dab get more than 20 miles away and you’ve now chance.
3rd Poor battery life as power consumption is very high. ( I must admit that Roberts have made a dab radio that manages over 100 hours of digital listening from a set of 4 alkaline D sized batterys. Having said that being a decorator, I have a very old hitachi radio cassette that takes the same set of batteries and I use on FM every day whilst working and one set of batteries will last me about 3 months) This is because inside a dab radio their is a lot going on as you have a mini computer thats doing a lot of data processing along with D A converters all working flat out all the time. And of course all this is on top of the dab radio still having to power an FM receiver circuit in order to get a signal to feed into the computer circuits to start with. After all of that the dab radio then finally has to amplify the low bit rate audio signal similar in quality to an mp3 file made on the lowest quality settings.
Happy Listening!!

I must admit their is a lot more stations.
This means a lot more advertising revenue for commercial radio along with the BBC being able to extort very high licence fees due to claiming a lot more funds are needed to run all of these extra stations!
Just a pity that when you try listening to them most dont work at all and the few that do work keep cutting out with nasty noises if you move about near the radio.

Julia Clark says:
24 July 2010

Most of the time I only listen to Planet Rock and it’s not available on FM so I need DAB (or perhaps internet radio? – not sure how they work). The rest of the time it is 5 live and I would concur with the comment above.
But there seem to be patches where the signal disappears and I had to have a special aerial fitted onto the windscreen. If FM is full then DAB needs to be improved or something else introduced.

stewart mason says:
25 July 2010

I very rarely watch tv but enjoy listening to the radio. I have 6 radios in the house. I am an old age pensioner. Is the government going to pay to replace my radios when they switch off the analogue signal. If not, why not?? I can not afford now to buy even one dab radio.

Quality of reception = Terrible

it reminds me of the old portable MW mono radio I had when I was a kid,
it only worked in certain places and tuned in and out.

I live 42.5 miles from the centre of london and the recetion is just awaful

I’ve had to tune my horribly expensive Pure radio into FM
and the Sony downstairs, well it can only be used for CD’s

I assumed that work was being done to improve coverage; since 2005 – its not changed one iota, so how van they switch FM off, there is NO ALTERNATIVE that works!

It seems we need an ongoing national survey of DAB users. Let’s have a simple but careful questionnaire. Check the interest in radio, the experience, the locality & type of area, the listening preferences, and each persons choice for the future. The statistics would be valuable.
I like progress; have enjoyed radio for many decades; live in a good reception area;and I listen through FM, DAB, & digital-TV. Each has benefits. FM is perfect (where would cars & miniature radios be without it?). The only virtue of DAB (or listening via TV/computer) is to get extra stations. I use only 1 or 2 extra ones ocasionally, so I say that DAB has not been worth the extra cost, the bulkier sets, and the inferior battery-life.

P.S. It’s well worth reading the other conversation – about DAB IN CARS. There are interesting general comments about DAB as well, mostly about how bad it is !

The trouble with DAB is that it is a 1960s technology. It should be ditched in favour something better.
DRM (the BBC calls it digital medium wave) uses error correction software similar to that in digital TV sets so is much less susceptible to the breakup and interference so familiar with DAB.
What’s more, since it can operate on the same MW frequencies already in use, even more valuable bandwidth would be available for the government to sell off.
MW also means better coverage as it is less ‘line of sight’.

rmgalley says:
17 August 2010

Actually it’s mid-1980’s technology but, in its current UK implementation, it might just as well be 1960’s as DAB audio quality is comparable with a good 1960’s cassette deck. Technology moves on very quickly so it is pertinent to make a comparison with the personal computer – would you today use software that was developed 25 years ago? In the UK we seem to have a fixation with staying with a technology because we were first to develop it. I’d liken it to pushing on the public 405-line monochrome TV when most others had adopted 625-line colour.

DRM might be a solution for digital Medium Wave but the audio quality still isn’t good because the bit-rates have to be so low. DRM is not a replacement for FM but might be OK for such as BBC R5L.

Helen Roberts says:
29 July 2010

I have a wind up /solar FM radio which is fantastic for use anywhere inside or out and oh so cheap . There doesn’t seem to be any DAB radio that can replace it and I certainly don’t want to have to resort to batteries to escape the mains.

Chris Brunton says:
29 July 2010

I live in Maldon in Essex and DAB reception is awful. If I am lucky I only get squeals, squeaks and general interference; if I am unlucky I get nothing. Luckily, my old AM/FM radio is to hand. Having bought 2 (apparantly) decent quality DAB radios, I feel ripped off. I have just taken a new Mondeo with a DAB radio. Apart from radio 5 (not sure why) it is even worse. Most radio stations suffer from long gaps in reception. Again, luckily this radio also has AM/FM and a good iPod connection. In my view, digital was good for TV, but is useless for radio and the quicker this is made a public issue, the better.