After DAB? the sound of silence!

After DAB? the sound of silence!

Over several decades a government that did not believe in interventions in the market quietly intervened to pull-off a remarkable modernisation of a number of the UK’s telecommunications networks. Its most outstanding success was in mobile radio. GSM moved the UK (and the rest of the world) from analogue to digital technology…the drive for this change came out of the DTI. Hard of the heels of this success the Government pulled off a second coup. The digitalisation of the UK’s broadcasting networks. That triumph is all but complete with the digital switch-over. Certainly BSkB played a major role in getting broadcasting by satellite moved into the digital world and frightened the cable TV industry into following. But digital terrestrial TV was a product of cooperation between the Government (DTI and DCMS) and the BBC. The BBC played a particularly pivotal role. Without doubt digital terrestrial TV is incredibly good value for consumers and is good for British broadcasting. So good that not even the most die-hard consumer refuseniks raised a murmur of protest as TV networks that has been with us for over half a century were quietly switched off. This success was the result of governments wanting to make a better communications world, planning well ahead and putting together (with the industry) some very good strategies.

Then came sound radio. The strategy was flawed from the outset. Whilst the DAB technology had been standardised across Europe the frequency bands to roll it out on had not. The UK had managed to free up some spectrum at VHF (around 200 MHz). It was excellent spectrum to cover the country with the least number of transmitters and had good building penetration. But this spectrum was not available in any other country. The only spectrum available in many other European countries was at 1500 MHz. This would necessitate a lot more transmitting stations to achieve the same national coverage. A small meeting was convened at the DTI. The consumer electronics industry was represented by an UK industry trade association. But by then the UK had no indigenous consumer electronic manufacturers and their representative only took notes to send to far away places. The independent sound broadcasters were represented but were struggling financially. DAB was not a priority and they had no views one way or the other. DCMS were present but did not have the technical expertise to weigh the options. It boiled down to a conversation between a senior DTI official and an engineer from the BBC policy unit. The BBC interest was driven from the programme side who were frustrated by how test cricket kept disrupting their normal schedules.

Could the UK risks going it alone on the lower cost 200 MHz option? Could the UK afford the expense of rolling out sound broadcasting networks at 1500 MHz for what was the poor relation in broadcasting – sound radio? So no excuse for not knowing the issues. The wrong decision was taken.

A strategy was agreed where the BBC would drive out a 200 MHz DAB network and load it with a reasonable choice of sound radio channels. DCMS would bring in legislation to bring the independent broadcasters to the party. The third leg of the strategy was that low cost DAB receivers would arrive sooner rather than later. That was one of the two Achilles heels of the DAB strategy. The UK depended upon Far East imports and seen from Tokyo or Soul there was no visible market at such a great distance to warrant the investments. This might have been soluble had sound radio had some version of pay channels to cross subsidise the receivers to drive up volume and eventually achieve scale economies. But sound radio is free. Another industrial weakness to hit DAB fortunes was the lack of an indigenously owned car industry to draw-in to be part of the DAB story. Instead viewed from Detroit the whole world ran of analogue FM radio – so why complicate the supply chain for a quirky UK only service?…after all there were no plans to switch-off the UK’s FM sound networks.

The second Achilles Heel was sound quality. People expect digital to offer much better quality than analogue. In most cases it does. For DAB it does not. The quality (fidelity) of an analogue FM sound channel matches the quality of DAB in good signal areas. There is also a quality-quantity dilemma with DAB. One can have a bigger choice of sound channel providing a lower data rate is used for each channel. A lower data rate means poorer sound quality. This has led to the quality of a number of DAB channels not being as good as analogue FM. The DAB technology traps the UK into a less than ideal compromise.

So there we have it…more expensive receivers, quality that is certainly no better than analogue FM and a no new killer channels in the programme line-up. That does not look a compelling consumer proposition that is going to drive up DAB to 100% penetration. In fact in some regards the analogue-digital balance has got worse. When mobile phones have a sound radio built-in they are almost inevitably analogue FM. The day when the government can switch-off analogue FM sound broadcasting is not even in sight.

Had DAB been the same roaring success as GSM and Digital Terrestrial TV now would be the time when planners would be thinking what comes next for sound radio. There would be ideas for stunning high fidelity sound radio networks to be rolled out sometime over the next 5-7 years to replace DAB with all its limitations. Instead we have the sound of silence. Nobody in the DCMS or the BBC or Ofcom or anywhere else is spending any time thinking about the future of sound radio.

The reason is simple. DAB has reached an excruciating impasse. It has come too far to write off as a failure. The fact it has come as far as it has is down to the brave efforts of a few. But it has not got enough momentum to ever win. It may be doing a reasonable job today but it is not the future.  The UK’s version of DAB is never going to suddenly break out and sweep around the world to become a global standard. Waiting a few more years is not going to change this reality.  In technology cycle terms it is making its way slowly up a technical cul de sac. In cost terms it has left the BBC having to pay twice over to get its programmes to its sound radio listeners.

At some point in the future the UK’s version of DAB will time expire…all technologies do. What will replace it? Is it another dedicated sound broadcasting network offering stunning sound quality or will public service sound broadcasting somehow be integrated into the UK’s broadband mobile networks? The UK would be much better off for a DAB replacement system to begin sooner (say in 10 years time) than later (say in 30 years time). The industrial realities mean that the UK has to re-align itself with European and global standards particularly in terms of radio spectrum as well as technology. There is much to think about and discuss with our partners in the rest of the EU. Such long term thinking could begin now. Is anybody listening?

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