Written by Radio

Why DAB Radio in the UK Isn’t Broken and Doesn’t Need Fixing

A bold title, I think. But read on for the reason.

There’s a Techradar piece – Why DAB in the the UK is broken, and how to fix it – that recently got a certain amount of traction and lots of retweeting amongst radio types. But it really needs some robust countering. I half expected James Cridland to have a go, but maybe he’s fed up repeatedly doing the same thing over and over.

OK.

I’ll bite.

From Techradar:

Firstly, let’s be clear about one thing – the real challenge isn’t coverage, even if that does need improving. That’s a well understood issue and the solution is obvious enough.

Nope, the main problem is bandwidth.

Unfortunately, that’s just not true.

The main thesis of the piece is that it’s a technological failing that has held back DAB radio. And in particular the low quality bit-rate of stations.

But that’s really not the case, and feels to be something of a naive engineer’s viewpoint of what does and doesn’t work.

The first and most important thing to know about how people listen to the radio is that they don’t care about the underlying technology.

They really don’t.

I’m fairly tech savvy. If you’re reading this blog, then you probably are too. We do care. But you know what? The average listener doesn’t care a jot.

They want to hear something good on the radio, and they want it to work easily and in all the places that they expect to be able to hear radio – which is everywhere. And that’s really all they want.

Digital has brought them more choice, and the likes of 6 Music and Absolute 80s prove that listeners rather like that choice. Analogue is full. There’s no more space. It’s this way or the [internet] highway. And of course we don’t have the bandwidth or the coverage for that. Techradar is right about that.

Are there technological issues with radio? Certainly.

Does it feel backwards that the vast majority of national DAB services are in mono rather than stereo? Definitely.

Is it a shame that at a time when audio is progressing in exciting new directions with multi-channel and object-oriented technologies that we in radio haven’t really adopted them? Indubitably.

But you know what? Most FM broadcasters crucify the life out of their analogue broadcasts by compressing the sound and making their station “louder.” Do we hear constant complaints about that? From those who know about these things perhaps, but average listeners, I’m afraid to say, don’t really care. Or if they do, they’re not voting with their dials.

(I should state at this point, I’d love a world in which all audio was delivered uncompressed in multi-channel goodness for me to listen to in a style of my choosing. But then I’d like people to switch off their mobile phones in cinemas too.)

Most radios? Mono speakers I’m afraid.

I think the main problem that DAB has in some quarters is actually perception. That DAB is somehow failing.

Reach is up to 51% – in other words 27 million people are listening via DAB every week (Source: RAJAR Q3 2013).

Is that a failing technology?

The biggest problems I believe that DAB has is perception.

– Radios have been expensive – especially for those who only want to spend less than a tenner on a radio.
– Coverage has been poor in the past. If you can’t get your preferred station in your location, then DAB doesn’t work for you.
– And then there’s the lack of DAB in the car.

But as I say, I think many of these “failings” are now perceptions rather than actuality.

These things are improving. Devices are getting cheaper. Devices have reached about £20, but £10 is on the horizon. There is increased coverage – not least with the BBC building out vast numbers of transmitters over the next couple of years. Commercial radio is doing a similar job, extending coverage of local multiplexes through a recently agreed funding mechanism. And we’re close to a majority of new cars coming equipped with DAB – although there is certainly a long way to go with cars. Not least educating drivers that despite the appearance of built in radios in their dashboards, they are replaceable or upgradeable (I truly believe that this is the single biggest issue that we face with in-car upgrades).

OK. So I’m painting a rosier picture. But why do national services choose to broadcast in low bit-rate?

Well, it’s essentially financial. They broadcast at the rate they can afford. And there is a single national multiplex with room for about 10 or so services which is owned by a single operator. Economics dictates how that space is filled.

A second national multiplex will be advertised within the next few months. Upon launch that will instantly double the capacity, meaning that the price to broadcast will hopefully be driven down allowing either more choice or allowing some services to improve their broadcast quality.

But what about the technology Adam? Isn’t DAB+ the way forward?

Well in time, it probably will be. But a significant proportion of the many millions of DAB sets currently in use are not upgradeable. Technology writers are always keen to upgrade. The lifecycle of mobile phones or operating systems is in low single digit years. A two-year old phone or OS? Ancient.

TV manufacturers would love us to upgrade our televisions more frequently that the five or so years that we currently do, with 4K and curves are their latest reasons we should rush out to Currys.

But consumers sort of expect their radios to work for a long time. And with no moving parts beyond on/off switches, they do work for many years. You don’t replace your fridge every two or three years because there’s a new “2014” feature packed model on the market. You probably just replace it when the old one packs in. And that’s how consumers have treated radios. Just announcing that they’re all going to have to buy new DAB+ radios tomorrow isn’t going to work.

When we see the “Digital Tick” launched, it’ll only appear on DAB+ equipped devices. In due course, we’ll all hopefully own DAB+ radios. But this will take years not months. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the odd DAB+ station launch – perhaps on the new second national commercial multiplex.

I’d look to Freeview and Freeview HD for an analogy.

Because you know what? Freeview also works on the same “old” mp2 technology that DAB works on. When we old went to 100% digital TV a couple of years ago – we all went mp2. It’s not the latest and greatest. But since OnDigital launched their first DTT boxes in 1998 (around the time of the first DAB multiplexes) they’ve been essentially using the same technology.

If you’ve bought a new TV or DTT set-top box in the last couple of years, it may well have come with Freeview HD. That’s works using far more up to date codecs. The TV in my living room picks up these services, while the cheaper older one in my bedroom isn’t Freeview HD compatible. I suspect in the fullness of time, that’s how we’ll upgrade to DAB+ in radio terms.

Like DAB, Freeview/Freeview HD is a space constricted platform with a limited number of multiplexes. Freeview will never be able to offer the range of HD channels that satellite or cable can. But do we consider Freeview a technological failure? I don’t think so.

The average viewer really doesn’t care about the underlying TV technologies that we get our favourite shows in. They just want to watch Eastenders or The X-Factor. As we get faster and better broadband, more and more TV will be IP delivered. But at the moment? How fast can you download an HD film at 8pm in the evening, even on fibre?

And by the way, while a viewer might be getting their picture in glorious 1080p, they’re just as likely to be hearing the sound from their TV in awful tinny speakers that are all the manufacturers are capable of squeezing into their razor thin sets. But that’s another subject.

Right now, what radio needs to do to grow digital listening is get more devices with radio built in. Wander into a high street branch of Currys or Argos and see all those iPhone docks or Bluetooth speakers. How many of them have DAB built-in? Look at the mobile phone in your pocket, or the tablet on your sofa? How many of those have DAB built-in?

The single biggest driver of digital listening is making sets available and affordable, and in 2014, bundled into hardware that consumers want to buy.

While I love the beautiful range of retro-styled radios the average John Lewis has for sale, it’s more about putting radio into rather more contemporary devices that consumers aged under 45 want to buy as far as I’m concerned.

It’s about perception, availability and devices. It’s not about the technical standards.