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New British Government Backs Digital Radio

2015 remains target date, but transition will not begin until analog listening is in the minority

Listeners will be responsible for setting a switchoff date for analog radio in the United Kingdom. That was the central point Ed Vaizey, the new British minister for culture, communications and creative industries, delivered in his speech today (July 8) at the Intellect Consumer Electronics Conference.

“We will not switch over until the vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analog. We will not switch over to digital until digital coverage matches FM. And we will not switch off FM; FM will remain a platform for small local and community radio for as long as these services want it,” Vaizey said.

Despite this litany of “will not”s, Vaizey reaffirmed the support of the British government for 2015 as a target date for a digital radio switchover, although he said that “a lot more work needs to be done before we can make it a cast-iron commitment.”

Vaizey’s address accompanied the release by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport of a Digital Radio Action Plan. The plan includes an assessment of what a digital switchover will mean for both consumers and industry, including rural listeners and possible environmental impact. It also identifies the need for minimum specifications for digital radio receivers, an effective marketing plan and possible subsidies or inducements to help people replace analog receivers.

Vaizey offered a litany of “C”s that must be addressed as a switchover is planned: consumers, content, coverage, cars and cell phones.

“Consumers, not government, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions will ultimately determine whether a switchover to digital can happen. The challenge for the radio industry is to drive consumer demand by providing great content. In this I agree with Lord Fowler’s recent comments that ‘the public have got to be taken with the process.'”

He then discussed the need for more content from both the BBC and from commercial broadcasters. Alluding to the recent decision by the BBC Trust to block plans by the public-service broadcaster to shutter its 6 Music brand in favor of an 1 Xtra expansion to BBC Radio 1, Vaizey said, “So we need more 6 Musics. And not just from the BBC but also from the commercial sector.”

He noted that 90 percent of the United Kingdom is covered by DAB signals, but more needs to be done, and he noted that 2013 remains the target date for digital radio to be standard in car radios. “I will be talking to mobile phone manufacturers over the next few months to encourage them to replicate the efforts of the car manufacturers, so that digital radios are available in new phones from the end of 2013,” he also said.

In addressing some points made by critics of digital radio, Vaizey noted that while the Internet is an important value-added platform for radio, it is not as mobile as DAB and there are “massive implications for capacity and energy use if all listeners listened to the radio on the Internet.” He also sidestepped calls for DAB+ to be implemented in Britain, saying that “A change in technology, to say DAB+, offers little benefit to the industry or listeners compared to the impact it would have.” He did, however, say that DAB+ must be a feature of future digital radio receivers to provide flexibility in the future. (The WorldDMB receiver profiles for digital radios, issued in 2008, already call for receivers to be able to tune DAB/DAB+/T-DMB signals.)

Vaizey also noted that DAB broadcasting is more energy efficient than traditional analog broadcasting, citing figures from transmission services provider Arqiva. He said the government would study these claims further as “We believe this is a positive story to tell …”

The address ended with one additional “C,” a promise of certainty for broadcasters, receiver makers and listeners alike, saying that while 2015 remains an appropriate target, a switchover would only begin once consumers were ready.

“We will only consider implementing a digital radio switchover once at least 50 percent of all listening is already on digital, or to put it another way when analogue listening is in the minority. The decision will also be dependent on significant improvements to DAB coverage at a national and local level,” Vaizey said.