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Questions for Ed Vaizey

Dear Mr Vaizey,

I have now had the opportunity to consider your speech to the Intellect Consumer Electronics Conference today, 8th July 2010, and I am unable to distinguish any difference between your policy and that which was espoused by the previous Government.

You made great play in your presentation of the importance of the consumer but are you really sure that you know the policy you are following as, to be honest, there are parts of your speech which do not even sit alongside each other?

For instance, at the start of your speech you indicated - and I have highlighted the part which is relevant:

"We must not under estimate the challenge of radio’s transition from analogue to digital. The relationship between the radio and listeners is a personal and emotional one.

That is why I would like to make it clear today that the needs and concerns of radio listeners will be absolutely central to our approach to Digital Radio Switchover.

So.

We will not switch over until the vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analogue.

We will not switch over to digital until digital coverage matches FM.

And we will not switch off FM, FM will remain a platform for small local and community radio for as long as these services want it."

Later on you in your speech you assert:

"But as I have already said it is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover. Therefore, the target date is secondary to the criteria. We will only consider implementing a Digital Radio Switchover once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital, or to put it another way when analogue listening is in the minority. The decision will also be dependent on significant improvements to DAB coverage at a national and local level."

Now would you be kind enough to advise me whether Digital Radio Switchover will occur when "...the vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio..." or "...once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital, or to put it another way when analogue listening is in the minority"? If it is the former then what percentage is a "...vast majority..." if the latter then what is the difference between your government's policy and your predecessors?

Perhaps you mean that only digital radio listening will be taken into account with regard to the 50% digital listening "majority" and will not include Digital Television, Internet and Digital Unspecified which, using Radio Joint Audience Research's (RAJAR's) figures for Quarter 1 of 2010, would reduce DAB radio listening to 15.1% from the headline 24%. Can you clarify this please?

The previous Government's policy on Digital Radio also made it clear that there would be no switchover until digital coverage matched FM and that FM would not be switched off but left for a "rump" of local and community radio, so where is the difference between your policy and that of your predecessors on these two items?

Now let us look at the question of sound quality – a matter which you singularly failed to address throughout your speech and the one which is surely of the utmost importance to listeners.

You appear to have been advised that "...DAB remains the most appropriate digital broadcast platform for the UK. A change in technology, to say DAB+, offers little benefit to the industry or listeners compared to the impact it would have. The benefits of DAB+ are primarily a more effective use of spectrum, but DAB already offers significant capacity for new services and there are only so many which the market can sustain. DAB+ offers very little in terms of data services and functionality which can’t also be achieved through DAB. However, we must protect against any future change and DAB+ must be a feature of future digital radio receivers."

Whoever gave you the above information about the technicalities of DAB and DAB+ appears to have told you what the industry wants you to hear with scant regard for what the consumer wishes to listen to.

Both DAB and DAB+ use multiplexers (MUX) with a bandwidth of 1.536MHz (although I understand that MUX capacity is measured in Capacity Units [CU] of which each MUX has 864 CUs but the capacity is also effected by the Protection Level so I have ignored that for the simplicity of the discussion). Using DAB this would permit a capability of carrying 4 or 5 high quality radio stations (at a data rate of 256Kbit/s), or 10 low quality radio stations (at a data rate of 128Kbit/s), or a mixture of both. Anything over 192Kbit/s approaches FM quality and it is perceived that 256Kbit/s approaches CD quality – an improvement over the existing...a step forward.

Currently most music stations are being transmitted at 128 to 160Kbit/s and speech, even Radio 4, cannot be transmitted in stereo as its allocated bandwidth on most MUXs is so low. If DAB is to be the medium in the UK because the industry has convinced you it should be then why not show your real commitment to the consumer by insisting on a minimum data rate of 192Kbit/s?

With DAB+, which you have dismissed, the bandwidth required to give quality approaching FM is about 64Kbit/s and 96Kbit/s would give the listener something like CD quality. So even at the highest bit rate (best sound quality) something like thirteen stations could share the same bandwidth and at near FM quality you could have something like twenty stations or, again, a combination of both.

The greatest number of DAB stations I can find allocated to any MUX in the UK at the moment in the "Radio Listener's Guide 2010" is fourteen on London (DRG) 3 some of which, I understand, are transmitting at bit rates as low as 64Kbit/s. With DAB+ they could all be transmitting at near FM quality with some of the more critical ones transmitting at CD quality. No extra bandwidth would be required to maintain the number of stations available on each MUX with the additional benefit that the "sound quality" critics might be forced to reconsider their opposition. In the light of the available evidence I fail to understand how the benefits of DAB+ are not readily distinguishable to yourself or your advisers.

If, on the other hand, there are no advantages then why are you going to insist that "...DAB+ must be a feature of future digital radio receivers."? You are doing nothing to encourage the network providers to convert their DAB MUXs to DAB+ so what do you think will be the motivator for them to do so? It certainly won't be public pressure because they've already displayed their contempt for the public by pressing ahead with Digital Radio when virtually nobody wanted it (and many still don't) and it won't be the Government as you've just given them carte blanche to carry on with DAB and dismissed the alternative. In your speech you stressed the need to dispel uncertainty but by insisting that DAB+ is in receivers but not in transmitters haven't you added to the confusion?

Would you not think, if you were just an interested party in this whole subject but divorced from the lobbyists and advisers, that this has all the makings of a farce? Why not insist on DAB+ MUXs now so nobody can complain about the cost of conversion in the future?

If the drawback is the 11 million or so who have bought DAB receivers (some of which are only listened to on FM I believe so don't lets shed too many tears) then do you not consider that to dismiss the 130 million FM receivers as a "big issue" is somewhat underplaying the significance of it?

Those who may not be seduced by the advertising, "spin" and marketing incentives of DAB or cannot afford to change will be left listening to small local and community stations and have no access to national radio – it's as simple as that, you said it. If that isn't creating the FM "ghetto" which you alluded to in your speech then I'm not sure what is.

All in all I believe many radio listeners will be disappointed when they get around to analysing your speech. It seems as though you have let an opportunity to move ahead disappear into a quagmire of vested interests with scant regard for the consumer – the very people for whom you claim to have concern.

#128007 • 07/11/2010 2:59pm by Barry Price • Vote: Up votes (36) Down votes (12)