Written by Radio, Technology

Digital Britain: 2015 – First Thoughts on Radio

It’s finally here – The Digital Britain report. It’s Lord Stephen Carter’s magnum opus, before he ups and offs.
The headlines are sure to be the levy charged on fixed lines to fund broadband, encouraging and enabling the wider take-up of broadband, and even the piracy issue. What happens to BBC licence fee money is certainly a big part of the story.
But for some of us, the key issue here is radio. Digital radio.
Digital radio gets its own chapter.
The chapter opens with a quote from the early nineteenth century Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle: “One must verify or expel his doubts, and convert them into the certainty of Yes or No.”
This seems to be addressing the need for radio, as an industry, to stop dithering and jump into the digital soup. Or am I mixing my metaphors?
What is clear, that radio, as a relatively small industry worth £1.1bn per year (including BBC spend), needs to do something to remain essential to the vast majority of the population who continue to listen.
At the heart of our vision is the delivery of a Digital Radio Upgrade programme by the end of 2015.
So there’s the date: 2015. It’s not actually that far off. The plan is that the “Digital Radio Upgrade” as it’s to be known (to differentiate from TV’s “Digital Switchover” one supposes), will take place on a single date in that year, with at least two years’ advance notice.
To enable this to take place, two key crieria need to be met by the end of 2013.
1. 50% of listening is to digital
2. national DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage, and local DAB reaches 90% of the population and all major roads
(Note that digital obviously doesn’t solely include DAB).
The Digital Britain report says that it’s “our intention that the criteria should be met by the end of 2013.”
An accompanying (and in the first release at least, wrongly labelled) chart shows that left to itself, we should reach 43% digital by 2013 rather than 50%. The difference will be delivered by the “Drive to Digital” effort. By switchover in 2015, the reports’ authors predict that 68% of listening will be to a digital platform. Obviously at that point, we will need to get it to 100%.
Ofcom has been asked to produce a report, at least once a year, on the progress towards these criteria. I’d suggest that it might be more appropriate to report quarterly as it has done for digital television.
The Consumer Expert Group, which has helped oversee digital TV switchover, is being brought in to help facilitate all this. They’ll also determine whether or not a Digital Radio Help Scheme will need to be put in place. This is akin to the scheme set up for TV to ensure that nobody is disenfranchised by the move to digital.
Within radio circles there has been an endless series of discussions about whether DAB is the right format and whether we should instead be adopting DAB+, DRM, IP or some other format. The Digital Britain report largely dismisses these discussions. It makes clear the importance of a broadcast medium over internet delivery because it offers advantages such as portability, the most financially viable, and free at the point of access amongst others.
However, the report does seek to ensure that all digital radio sets sold in the UK conform to the WorldDMB profile 1. This will mean that going forward, we’d be able to move across to other formats like DAB+ and DMB-A without requiring a new radio. Adopting a single standard like this is also easier for manufacturers meaning a single set will work across Europe – something that’s not the case currently.
One pair of lines which might concern commercial radio operators is the following one:
Achieving the Digital Radio Upgrade timetable will require building a DAB infrastructure which meets the needs of broadcasters, multiplex operators and listeners. This will require a significant contribution from the commercial operators and the Government welcomes the early commitments that they have given.
The report doesn’t suggest much in the way of spare cash being brought to bear to improve digital radio coverage.
However, the BBC will also be expected to contribute in line with its Charter Public Purpose.
Although most radio stations have benefited from the lower transmission charges that followed on from the untakings made by Arqiva to the Competition Commission, that didn’t necessarily follow through to everyone. In particular, multiplex owners tended to be beneficiaries rather than stations broadcast on their muxes.
The BBC will be required to roll-out DAB coverage nationally to the same level as its current FM network. This needs to be achieved by the end of 2014. The national commercial multiplex, run by Digital One (D1), and shortly to fall under Arqiva’s control, already matches Classic FM’s coverage in overall coverage (Classic FM being the only commercial FM broadcaster), although currently the FM and DAB coverage areas don’t actually match. So it’s actually likely that D1’s coverage area will need increasing.
The report’s authors also believe that signal strength needs increasing to improve indoor coverage. This is certainly true – as many listeners will tell you. Hopefully a lot of this can be achieved “simply” by turning up the power on current transmitters (I speak as a non-engineer).
I think stations on the national commercial multiplex (my employer included) will be pleased that Digital Britain proposes that the BBC and D1 should work closely together to ensure that new transmitters put up by the BBC should benefit both puiblic and commercial multiplexes. This should result in lower costs for the commercial operator as the network is extended.
Local and regional multiplexes need work which everyone seems to understand.
Local multiplex operators will probably be pleased to learn that the BBC is likely to be required to fund significant proportions of some of their build out costs. These multiplexes will need expanding if the BBC local services (which all sit on commercial multiplexes) are to reach the current FM penetrations.
Meanwhile regional multiplexes will be replanned entirely to produce a second national multiplex. In essence, many quasi-national services are available on many different regional (and local) multiplexes. This replanning should allow regional advertising – something that the current national multiplex is unable to offer.
To encourage operators to find solutions, multiplex licences could be extended to 2030; the D1 licence currently expires at the end of 2011. Administered Incentive Pricing (AIP) would also be delayed – the dreaded spectrum pricing. We’ll know for certain what’s being offered in a year’s time.
What’s clear is that the report’s authors understand that what’s really needed is encouragement for less die-hard listeners to adopt digital radio.
The report suggests that we need niche services like “a dedicated jazz station” (Jazz FM is back on air), getting better value from existing content like “live coverage of Premiership football or uninterrupted coverage from music festivals” is important.
I’m not sure that any broadcaster with Premiership football is not making full use of its rights. They’re not cheap after all. And I suspect that the BBC will argue that the live festival coverage is exactly what 6Music is doing at Glastonbury in a couple of weeks (My employer, of course, has just spent the weekend at the Isle of Wight Festival, including live broadcasts of Simple Minds and Stereophonics). In my experience, this is more a question of securing rights from promoters, bands and record labels. That said, you’ll be hard pushed to find much live music coverage across the commercial radio dial. Aside from Absolute Radio, Classic FM is probably the other main exception.
The report suggests that it’s not just new services that are required to get more listeners adopting digital, but also more services. The report suggests that these might be EPGs, slideshows, downloading music, and so on. Pause and rewind is useful, and can already be found on high-end DAB sets. And the ability to save to memory card is also built in to some sets.
But cheap sets are also needed. The report talks about sub-£20 sets within the next two years. Seemingly set manufacturers have promised this. That said, some supermarkets have already reached this pricepoint now (Although my recent Sainsburys “Red” radio has dreadful sound and I wouldn’t recommend it at all. The quality of the speaker is awful).
The idea of having DAB to “FM-rebroadcasters” is an interesting one. Effectively the equivalent of Pure’s Highway for the home. I guess that one device in the house could serve multiple old FM receivers. I can see a problem in family homes where people change channels…
Getting digital radio into cars and other vehicles is obviously a key issue. The Digital Britain report highlights a five point programme that involves working with manufacturers to ensure that all vehicles are sold with a “digitally enabled” radio by 2013. Unlike France, there’s no suggestion that this would be legislated, although with a definitive switchover date, manufacturers would need to go digital anyway.
Other points include adopting a common logo for digital radios and the encouragement of converters like the Pure Highway in devices like Sat-Navs.
For local radio services, there are some key issues that the industry has been trying to achieve. John Myers produced a well-received report earlier this year for Digital Britain, and his recommendations are reprinted in the Digital Britain report.
Ofcom, however, didn’t fully support some of the details. In particular how a local impact test might be defined. The report ploughs through some of these objections and says that Ofcom will need to agree a two-year pilot based on an output focused regulatory regime. In other words, it’ll be how a radio service sounds to the listener, rather than where it’s based, that will be important. The pilot will only include a limited number of stations, but should it prove satisfactory, it’ll be rolled out “more widely.”
The report does go on to say that it wants to produce a new tier of what it describes as “ultra-local” services which will remain on FM. In effect, the idea is to bundle smaller ILR services and community stations together, leaving the bigger players, with networked programming, on DAB. I suspect some smaller players in local radio might not be happy with some of the proposed relaxations on community services, who’ll now be competitors not just for listeners but also for money. At a time when the smaller services are hurting the most – and closing down – I’m not sure that this is the news they want to hear.
Ofcom will extend licence periods for all national and local services that broadcast on DAB for up to seven more years. But if, by 2013, the Digital Upgrade timetable isn’t on track, then licences will be terminated in 2015, meaning rebidding would apply.
This is obviously important news for any ILR that’s close to licence expiry. And it’s especially important for the national commercial radio services all of whose licences expire between 2011 and 2012. In particular Classic FM and Talksport will appreciate the additional time this gives them to migrate their audience over to digital. That national FM licence in particular would have been hard fought over, however few years the licence might have been for.
Finally, the report will allow two or more smaller stations to be put together to form a single DAB service. With the prospective replanning of local and regional multiplexes, this neatly sidesteps some of the issues of geography that are simply unworkable currently.
Overall, then, I think that this is massively encouraging for radio. There are certainly going to be issues along the way, and obviously key to all of this is getting DAB coverage improved to meet current FM coverage. In particular, that means ensuring that DAB sets work satisfactorily indoors. Anyone who has tried using a DAB set in a modern office, often acting as a massive Faraday cage, will know what I mean.
As ever, these are my own views, and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.
I should probably also stress that I’m only commenting here on the radio bit of Digital Britain. Other parts mightn’t be nearly as good as this. There do seem to be some quite worrying aspects of it at first glance.
Update: I have amended or clarified a couple of small errors since first publishing this piece.