Changing the dial - TechCentral

Changing the dial

While attention has been focused on television in the digital migration debate, digital radio has been left out in the cold, despite the advantages it can bring to the listening public. Is it time for SA to adopt digital audio broadcasting technology?

UK telecommunications and broadcasting regulator Ofcom has set 2015 as the year Britain will switch off analogue FM and AM radio broadcasts and migrate completely to digital audio broadcasting (DAB) technology.

The benefits of doing so are clear. Like digital terrestrial television, DAB makes far more efficient use of frequency spectrum than analogue, allowing an order of magnitude more radio stations to be licensed, especially in rural areas.

It’s also much cheaper to maintain (though not to set up) and audio quality is superior, provided broadcasters don’t compress the signal too heavily.

Modern DAB receivers allow listeners to do cool things, like pause or rewind live radio, much like pay-TV subscribers can do with personal video recorders. Think about it: how often have you tuned in to your favourite station and cursed for having caught only the tail end of a news bulletin? With DAB technology, you simply rewind the live broadcast to the beginning of the bulletin.

DAB, which was first deployed by the UK in the mid-1990s, has made significant progress in the past 15 years and is now used in more than 20 countries worldwide.

The original standard, which had a number of technical problems, looks set to be replaced soon with DAB+, which uses an audio compression code — HE-AAC — superior to DAB’s older Mpeg 2. Among other things, DAB+ is more efficient again at using scarce frequency spectrum.

For early adopters of DAB, though, moving to DAB+ is a problem. For one thing, most DAB receivers aren’t able to pick up DAB+ broadcasts. This means people who have already bought digital radio receivers may have to replace them at some point in the future. And DAB radios are more expensive than FM receivers, at least for now. Ofcom has said the UK will migrate to DAB+ only once the vast bulk of digital receivers are able to tune into the broadcasts. That could take years.

Countries like SA, which haven’t yet begun digital radio broadcasts, can leapfrog the early adopters and go straight to DAB+ — or one of the other digital radio broadcasting technologies such as digital radio mondiale.

It must be said that digital broadcast radio has a number of disadvantages over FM and AM broadcasts.

Principal among these is that the cost of digital broadcasting equipment is still much higher than analogue equipment. The up- front costs mean it is often too expensive for smaller broadcasters and community radio stations to broadcast in digital.

This is a problem, given that one of the biggest advantages of digital radio is that it allows greater diversity of content on the airwaves. As digital radio becomes more widespread, though, costs will come down, allowing smaller broadcasters to use it.

Should SA be considering digital radio? After all, the country is in the throes of moving to digital television, so why not switch to digital radio at the same time?

The answer is the country can probably afford to wait before committing itself. FM radio does the job pretty well already, and the cost of the technology is still relatively high.

If we wait a few years, broadcasters may have to fork out a lot less. And the incum- bents will be less likely to be able to hog the available spectrum.

Of course, as bandwidth prices drop and broadband access proliferates, Internet radio could become a disruptive force that eventually undermines traditional broadcast radio, both analogue and digital.


  1. A number of things wrong with this article.

    Analogue AM and FM transmissions will categorically _not_ be switched off in the UK in 2015 and the UK will not migrate completely to digital audio broadcasting (DAB) technology for many reasons.

    DAB does not make efficient use of frequency spectrum compared to analogue and cannot allow “an order of magnitude more radio stations to be licensed” whether in rural areas or elsewhere.

    You make some good points about DAB+ – but this standard is not compatible with plain vanilla DAB and so the arguments for adopting DAB+ are irrelevant when talking about DAB.

    Here are 24 excellent reasons which explain the problems with the adoption of DAB in the UK – I suggest that you read them:

    1. Existing FM radio coverage is robust with close to universal coverage

    2. No alternative usage is proposed for FM or AM radio spectrum

    3. FM/AM radio already provides substantial consumer choice

    4. FM is a cheaper transmission system for small, local radio stations

    5. Consumers are very satisfied with their existing choice of radio

    6. Sales of radio receivers are in overall decline in the UK

    7. ‘FM’ is the global standard for radio in mobile devices

    8. The large volume of analogue radio receivers in UK households will not be quickly replaced

    9. Lack of consumer awareness of DAB radio

    10. Low consumer interest in purchasing DAB radio receivers

    11. Sales volumes of DAB radio receivers are in decline

    12. DAB radio offers poorer quality reception than FM radio

    13. No common geographical coverage delivered by DAB multiplexes

    14. Increased content choice for consumers is largely illusory

    15. Digital radio content is not proving attractive to consumers

    16. Consumer choice of exclusive digital radio content is shrinking

    17. Minimal DAB radio listening out-of-home

    18. DAB radio has limited appeal to young people

    19. DAB multiplex roll-out timetable has been delayed

    20. Legacy DAB receivers cannot be upgraded

    21. DAB/FM combination radio receivers have become the norm

    22. DAB carriage costs are too high

    23. DAB investment is proving too costly for the radio industry

    24. DAB is not a globally implemented standard


  2. I think a lot of these criticisms are generic and in some cases relate to DAB’s strengths. I love the fact that DAB is a single frequency service – and I love the fact that they multiplexes can be geographically localised or national.

    I have to ‘fess up that I brought Psion’s Wavefinder 12 years ago while in the UK, and wish I could use it in SA!

    I am not going to refute the opinions stated above now, but I would love DAB to come to our shores, via Sentech (yea right) or DSTV.

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