Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries has issued a supposedly more flexibly policy over forcing people to migrate from FM radio to DAB. To support his claims, a set of frequently asked questions are posed. Glib answers are given to the questions, and important points are swept under the carpet. Here are the very same questions with our answers:
- When will a switchover to digital radio take place?
- What will happen to FM?
- Why switch to digital radio?
- Don’t digital radios use more energy than analogue radios?
- Won’t a switchover to digital radio result in huge amounts of waste analogue radios?
- What will you do to improve coverage of digital radio?
- What will you do to make sure people can receive digital radio in their car?
- Isn’t the sound quality of digital radio of a lower standard than FM?
- Is there potential for another technology change, for example to DAB+?
The government still supports 2015 as a target date for digital radio switchover. This is an unreasonable target, given that the answers to legitimate concerns are wholly inadequate. The target date implies a changeover within this parliament. It is difficult to understand why extra costs are being forced on people both directly (buying new sets) and indirectly (spending by the BBC and other broadcasters) at a time when most "nice to have" expenditures are being cut and most people are unlikely to have spare cash.
The government says that the listener is at the heart of this process and a date cannot be set until the vast majority of listeners have adopted digital radio. Yet on the same web page, it is also stated that a key criterion is that "50% of listening is to digital radio". Half of listening is hardly a vast majority.
FM will not be ‘switched off’, but will continue as a platform for local and community radio. This is fine to the extent that there is a demand for such a thing. But it is not a justification for taking major national stations off FM, and other FM frequencies could be made available for this purpose, especially as only low powered, local transmitters are needed for these purposes.
It may be that digital radio has the potential to offer greater choice and content to listeners, although how much of this will be delivered and what the quality will be remains unclear. Digital transmitters are expensive and there is a limit to the availability of advertising revenue to finance more commercial stations. Many listeners remain primarily interested in national radio stations.
Consumers are claimed to be opting to ‘go digital’, with around 11 million DAB sets already sold, but any new and highly promoted technology will attract some buyers. 11 million sets is a small number in relation to the total number of radios in use. A great many audio devices are still being sold with only FM radio, some of them very expensive, and they will be perfectly usable for many years to come. Except that the government plans to remove the major national radio stations that many people listen to on FM. Lies have been told about DAB, especially in relation to quality, which must be a factor in persuading people to buy DAB radios.
The government claims that "new independent research shows that the difference in energy consumption between digital and analogue radio sets is minimal, with the efficiency of digital radios continuing to improve.
However, this is a grossly misleading claim. The amount of power used is relatively unimportant from an environmental point of view. What is far more critical is the consumption of batteries in portable sets, and the practical issue of how long a portable set will work before needing a change of batteries. In the critical tabletop/portable category, the DAB radios tested consumed nearly two and a half times as much power as the FM only radios. It is unfortunate that portables were not treated as a separate category, which would most likely have tilted the results much further in favour of FM.
In fact, the study shows that nearly all DAB radios use around twice the power of an FM only radio. The only exception is the hi-fi separates sector. Without further study, it is hard to know why the FM separates used more power, although it may be that FM receiver technology is stable, and nobody has thought it worth designing new hi-fi receivers to reduce already modest consumption of mains electricity.
The government reply also ignores the power consumption of transmitters. The power efficiency of DAB transmitters is around 25-35%, while FM can be as high as up to 90%.
The government gives a long "answer" to this about disposals needing to comply with the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive and about working with manufacturers and retailers to ensure that unwanted analogue equipment is disposed of "responsibly".
The real answer is much shorter - yes. There are huge numbers of perfectly good FM radios that people are using primarily to listen to the national radio stations that the government intends to remove from FM. Some FM radios have worked for 40 years or more, and new ones (without DAB) are still being sold in 2010. A glance through the popular "What Hi-Fi?" magazine shows significant numbers of devices that include radio but not DAB. They should be capable of a life of far more than five years. Are the supposed gains of DAB really so great as to justify all this waste?
The government acknowledges that some parts of the country are not served well by DAB, and claims to be working with industry to accelerate the build-out of DAB coverage. But will these claims stand up in a climate of austerity? Should money be spent in this way in a time of austerity? And will the results be good enough to change a situation where significant numbers of users have given up on DAB on account of poor reception?
The government says that car manufacturers have committed to fit DAB as standard in all new cars by 2013, but that means it will be long after 2015 before most cars can receive DAB.
The government also asserts that there are already devices on the market which can convert a car radio to digital. However, these cannot match the quality of a fully fitted system, and without being connected to an external aerial, quality is poor. Because the UK is using the inferior DAB system and not DAB+ many of these devices cannot be used abroad.
The government says that a recent survey suggested that 75% of listeners found the sound quality of digital to be as good as, or better, than FM. But it depends on what you are comparing with what. Relatively cheap portable sets may not show up the quality differences, but in good listening situations, DAB will inevitably be inferior to FM.
Many misleading statements have been made implying that any digital system is automatically better than any analogue system. This is obviously not true. Sound quality in digital systems depends on how much data is transmitted. Quality can be anything from terrible to superb. The quality of DAB is undoubtedly inferior to FM in relation to the ability to reproduce music and speech.
With regards to interference and other noise, DAB can be better, but when DAB degrades because the signal is poor, the result can be unusable, whereas FM suffers poor but usable quality.
A serious problem is that DAB is an old, low grade digital standard. Many countries are adopting the significantly better DAB+. Most DAB sets, including hi-fi receivers, sold in the UK cannot be upgraded to DAB+. But we are being told that we cannot have DAB+ either now or in any planned future.
The government claims to believe that DAB remains the right technology for radio. It points out that with 11 million DAB sets sold, the vast majority of which are not DAB+ compatible, adopting DAB+ would affect listeners whose DAB sets would become obsolete.
What the government fails to admit is that the selection of DAB without a plan for DAB+ migration was a blunder and that with millions of non-upgradeable sets sold, it is difficult to correct the blunder without embarrassment. This is no reason for forcing people to move from FM to DAB.
We should be aiming in the long run for a high quality digital radio system and people should be informed that most of the sets currently on the market are incapable of high quality and cannot be converted. There should be no transfer of national radio services from the already high quality FM to a digital service until the digital service is at least as good quality. And even then enough time should be allowed so that the amount of waste is reduced to modest proportions. All of this requires that the move be much later than 2015.