Selling the white elephant 

6 March 2008

The Register: DAB: A very British failure

Radio Today: Secret DAB talks at RadioCentre

The recent news of GCap’s intention to almost totally withdraw from the DAB digital radio platform may be currently overshadowed by GCap’s dealings with both its shareholders and Global Radio, but the repercussions of the DAB retreat rumble on in the background which isn’t surprising given the significance.

GCap’s withdrawal plan threatens to put a very large spanner in the works when it comes to switching off analogue radio transmissions, and it’s something that can’t be easily disguised or ignored without some form of corrective action.

It’s highly ironic that many noises were made in the past were made in relation to letting the open market define future standards – as with Ofcom’s “technology-neutral” stance in relation to future frequency usage – but when a digital ‘standard’ threatens to fail for whatever reason there’s talk of some form of intervention being required.

But nearly all of the possible intervention options available will carry a significant price to pay in financial and/or political terms.

Forcing the BBC to switch off its FM transmissions prematurely may not only stretch the already cool relationship between the corporation and government ministers to breaking point; for one thing, it could force a lot of BBC listeners into the hands of the commercial sector if they don’t buy a DAB radio.

Unless of course if the commercial sector is also forced to switch off their FM transmitters prematurely as well, which could be very problematic from both legal and financial perspectives (for one thing, all those community radio stations that don’t currently have DAB coverage).

Any resulting public hostility between the BBC and HM Government could end up being more politically damaging than government ministers would like to think, since the BBC is in closer contact with the voters on a day-to-day basis compared to the politicians.

An early government-backed analogue radio switchoff would also confuse and upset significant groups of people, which isn’t something that politicians would want to happen close to a impending general election when other factors also threaten to reduce an elected government’s popularity.

Then there’s the hugely expensive task of increasing DAB coverage to match or exceed the existing FM coverage area; a task which a cash-strapped BBC and a reluctant commercial sector is ill-equipped to do in a short space of time.

Finding additional stations to fill vacant DAB multiplex gaps might conceivably be a feasible option, although the financial entry point will have to be lowered as a consequence. Government subsidies are unlikely to be possible due to European Union rules in relation to distorting the commercial marketplace.

All things considered, the most painless solution for everyone concerned perhaps could be to improve the sound quality of the existing DAB radio stations by allowing stations to increase their transmission bitrates at no extra cost in the short term as well as announcing a longer term plan to migrate stations to a new standard such as DAB+.

Crisis talks may prove the only real solution in forcing Ofcom and government ministers into conceding that managed change is now the only way forward; the ‘free market’ UK radio industry has entered a phase of blind panic whilst some of our European neighbours (eg. Germany) already have a well-organised DAB+ migration plan.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Sunday 25 February 2024